Published 
February 27, 2020

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Coronavirus: US-China rivalry hampering global efforts to fight Covid-19, EU ambassador to China says

EU ambassador to China Nicolas Chapuis says the two sides are facing their challenges in a way that is “responsible, cooperative and respectful”. Photo: Reuters

The European Union remains central to the global fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, but the rivalry between China and the United States is doing little to help, the EU’s envoy to China said on Thursday.

“We are seeing high levels of tensions, strategic, economic, political, growing day after day. It is our opinion that these tensions are not conducive to the cooperative spirit we need today,” ambassador Nicolas Chapuis told an online press briefing.

“I am convinced that the EU voice is today more than ever necessary. We are the core of multilateral solutions that need to be taken to mitigate the coronavirus crisis and prepare for economic recovery,” he said.

As the coronavirus has spread around the world, Beijing and Washington have repeatedly pointed fingers and traded barbs over their respective handling of the health crisis and the origin of the pathogen, which was first reported in Wuhan, the capital of the central Chinese province of Hubei.

US President Donald Trump recently threatened to impose fresh tariffson China and withdraw from the phase one deal the two sides agreed in January as a first step to ending their 18-month trade war.

Meanwhile, relations between China and the EU, which are this year marking 45 years of diplomatic ties, were “on track”, Chapuis said, despite their occasional clashes on the Covid-19 issue.

Brussels and Beijing had been in regular talks about rescheduling a series of high-level meetings and events that had been expected to take place in February and March but were postponed because of the health crisis, he said.
The negotiations centred on setting the content and date for an EU-China summit ahead of a planned leaders’ meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and the heads of the bloc’s 27 member states in September in Germany, he said.

“The situation is difficult, but it does not mean that bilateral ties have been impacted. We have new challenges to face together. We are trying to do [that] in a way that is responsible, cooperative and respectful of each other’s concerns,” he said.“China is in a unique position to alleviate the existing tensions, further its own economic reform agenda and find cooperative solutions to these concerns,” he said. “Failing to do so will only encourage the already visible disruption of the supply chain, the decoupling of major economies and the rise of protectionism.”

China and the EU have been in talks on the creation of a comprehensive agreement on investment (CAI) since 2013 but the negotiations have been dogged by disagreements on key issues.

However, a diplomatic source said recently that there was fresh hope for an agreement being reached following a telephone call on April 18 between Chinese Vice-Premier Liu He – Xi’s right-hand man on economic issues – and Valdis Dombrovskis, the vice-president of the European Commission.

Chapuis said Beijing and Brussels were expected to “reach before September a common understanding of the scope of the agreement; what we call a political conclusion of the agreement”.

The two sides “urgently need a breakthrough” in the investment treaty talks and China “needs to show more ambition” for the deal, he said.

Since October, the frequency of the negotiations has been increased to once a month – with each session lasting a week – and have continued despite the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Both sides think this agreement is even more relevant now than before the pandemic. If concluded on time, [it] will be one of the keys to the global recovery,” Chapuis said.

“We need to agree on difficult issues, such as subsidies, level playing field and market access,” he said. “What is lacking today is symmetry or reciprocity, and we need to rebalance our economic and trade relationship”.

The ambassador said that while it was essential to improve the resilience of supply chains and reduce dependence on individual nations for raw materials, that did not mean European companies would abandon China.

Chapuis did however play down expectations for a quick start to talks on the creation of a free-trade agreement between the EU and China, despite Beijing repeatedly expressing its interest in launching a feasibility study.

“Let’s work step by step, this is not the time for an FTA if we don’t have a CAI framework,” he said. “Let’s use the opportunity of the crisis to show a clear understanding between the European Union and China on investment links before we engage in new and further discussion.”

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