China and Russia – the health diplomacy and the "fragmentation” of Europe, Op-Ed



Although for separate purposes, both China and Russia, are pursuing the "fragmentation" of the EU and "de-Europeanization" of the political decisions in the member states ... The pandemic creates a unique situation in which the EU’s “soft power” in the Eastern Partnership could be overshadowed by Moscow, but the latter pursues completely different goals - more vital goals - in Italy, Serbia or the US...


Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor

The public health crisis that the European Union is experiencing may curb its geopolitical ambitions. For one thing, its internal cohesion may dwindle if it does not learn quickly how to effectively manage the crisis. The existential threat to the member states presented by the pandemic has produced an uneven kind of solidarity: on the one hand collectivism has been readily apparent within member states but at EU level solidarity between member states has been partial and unsatisfactory. Worryingly for Brussels, support for some governments with a populist predisposition has been further strengthened during the crisis.

The crisis triggered by the arrival of COVID-19in Europe is just the latest emergency the European Union has had to contend with in recent years. But the scale of the pandemic is such that it is perceived already to be of much more significance than the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent threats to the survival of the Eurozone. It also presents a much more serious systemic challenge than that presented by individual terrorism or even the migrant crisis of 2015. Therefore, the revival of European solidarity at the level of operations and political discourse is an essential objective of the European institutions (IPN, March 24, 2020), in particular for the European Commission, in its role as "guardian of the European treaties". Only after building a minimal level of cohesive solidarity at home, can the EU return to dealing with geopolitical challenges. The deepening crisis of Hungarian democracy resulting from the anti-COVID-19‘rule by decree’ emergency law, to operate indefinitely (March 30, 2020), additionally yields a source of concern about the threat posed to fundamental freedoms by Viktor Orban’s increasingly hardline regime (Politico, April 1, 2020). The situation in Budapest led to renewed calls for the European Commission to initiate disciplinary action against Hungary, including potentially the withdrawal of voting rights in the Council of Ministers (under Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union). Thus, the Commission's intervention becomes necessary again, absorbing its capacities for vigilance, prevention and efficient problem-solving. Irrespective, if the EU wants to maintain its position as a key player in international affairs, it must improve its capacity to manage a multi-vectored crisis landscape.

The almost simultaneous, and unprecedented, mobilization of China and Russia's ‘health diplomacy’ around COVID-19in Europe and its neighbourhood is a real “cold shower” for the EU, which is still (understandably) consumed by the internal dimension of the pandemic. Even if European diplomacy is busy with current commitments, such as the repatriation of European citizens (about 250,000 people), the EU's geopolitical capacities urgently needs disinhibition. For the time being, the separate actions of China and Russia seek to exploit the relative disunity that has characterized the approach in EU capitals since the beginning of March 2020. The "fragmentation" of the political decisions in the EU serves their immediate and collective but also individual strategic interests. Thus, China can promote its commercial interests within/with individual EU member states and potentially access yet unexplored segments of national markets. At the same time, Russia's great immediate goal stems from the interruption of the cycle of economic sanctions, with subsequent opening of European liquidities to the Russian private sector. The lowering of European democratic standards by "de-Europeanizing" the concept of democracy or solidarity does not represent a stated objective of the Kremlin, but may gradually become a collateral outcome of its hydra-headed informational war. Maybe Russia has learned to resist amidst “economic isolation” imposed by Western sanctions. But their lifting favours the Kremlin's strategic plans of removing the economic blockages and allows the perpetuation of separatist conflicts in Ukraine in more frozen form. Nevertheless, the certainty of sanctions’ removal is quite low.

Health Diplomacy – a mixture of “hard” and “soft” powers

In March 2020, China established, from scratch, a sort of health diplomacy vis-à-vis Europe (some parts of it), which turned it from an international donor into the solicitant of help. Unlike Russia, Chinese foreign policy has been using "health diplomacy" for almost half a century, but in regions other than Europe, principally on the African continent. The focus on health issues in Russian diplomacy targeting the EU was somewhat invisible until the COVID-19crisis, in contrast to the humanitarian assistance widely used by Russia to support separatism in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) area, and, more recently, in the occupied territories of eastern Ukraine (Donbas and Luhansk).

Both “soft power” and “hard power” can develop interdependencies equivalent to health diplomacy, which according to the definition advocated by Jeremy Youde pursues “the goals of improving health while maintaining and strengthening international relations”. The perspective attributed by Jeremy Youde to Chinese health diplomacy – “encouraging close relations between nations […] to prevent commercial interruptions” - is precisely resonating with the political-economic goals pursued by Beijing towards the EU (trade expansion, relaunching of the European demand). Russia's motivation differs somewhat from that of China because it accentuates the “soft power”. Moscow relies on changing the attitude of some more vulnerable European states with the help of the health diplomacy.  The tools used until now - trade coercion, the promotion of Eurosceptic populists or the "information war" - did not advance the Russian interests efficiently.

China’s interests - the conquering of the EU's national markets

A clear consequence of the Chinese health diplomacy is already visible - the fast acceleration of Italy's full accession to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), since 2017 incorporated in China's supreme law. This step was not coordinated with Brussels, and overlooked US recommendations on China's rising “hegemony” (BBC, March 23, 2020). Although the idea of ​​a possible interconnection of trans-European transport networks and logistics with those built by China in the context of the “new silk road” was already found in the Sino-Italian memorandum of understanding, signed in March 2019 (ChinaDaily, March 23, 2019), Brussels was caught disoriented because of the COVID-19crisis. Even if Italy's decision may have been driven by a familiar kind of economic pragmatism and impulse to protect Italy’s national interests (Carnegie, May 2019), its character is unilateral and transgresses an important area of EU competence - foreign trade. Other member states such as Greece have also been incorporated into the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative, as have candidate states from the Western Balkans.

In parallel with the geographical expansion of the “Silk Road”, the Chinese side is not hiding its interest in opening European markets for Chinese developers of 5G technologies. Therefore, the worsening of the pandemic in European states allows China to extend “health diplomacy” from Italy to Spain, Belgium and other European Union jurisdictions, where the interests of Chinese IT companies (Huawei for example) are at the same time being intensively promoted. Another dimension of the quid pro quo approach pursued by China is identical to that previously pursued in Africa - creating trade opportunities for the domestic medical industry. Chinese President Xi Jinping stated emphatically that China prioritizes not only restoring previous production capacities but also “expanding” them to “provide the resources needed to fight the global virus” (Chinese Embassy to Belgium, April 2, 2020). Although the quality of Chinese production has produced some adverse reactions in Spain, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, the proportion of Chinese supplies is nonetheless increasing. A conclusive example is the purchase of Chinese medical products - worth EUR 432 million- by the Spanish authorities (ElPais, March 25, 2020).

China’s impulse to help stricken EU countries may also be driven by cold economic calculation. Before the COVID-19crisis, the total value of daily trade between the European market and China was reaching about EUR 1 billion, and annually the value of Chinese goods exports to the EU amounted to EUR 394.8 billion in 2018, while China imported goods from the EU worth EUR 209.8 billion. So, in global terms, China needs to relaunch European demand to speed up its own pandemic-constrained economy, ensuring the stability and legitimacy of the communist regime around the idea of a “strong China”.

Russia's interests – “against sanctions”

Russia's economy is also entering a turbulent zone, as authorities grapple with a reduced oil price, while the COVID-19crisis cools the Russian economy and consumption on international markets. The investment plans of the authorities have been jeopardized, and so the strategy of maintaining Vladimir Putin's regime. For these reasons, of existential nature for the Kremlin, the dismantling of Western sanctions would allow Russian companies to borrow and operate undisturbed in the West, without being subsidized by the Russian state. This would protect the National Welfare Fund ($ 125 billion or 7% of the Russian economy) from the risk of unforeseen massive disbursements, similar to the recent allocations of about $ 40 billion for the purchase of Sberbank shares. Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Andrey Belousov has ruled out the current deployment of the Fund's resources (RBC, March 14, 2020). Nevertheless, the Fund may well become a vital tool for covering the budget deficit, of at least 1% of the national GDP, forecast for 2020, caused by the small oil price and COVID-19ravaging effects on the economy.

Taking advantage of the Chinese Presidency at the UN Security Council in March 2020, Russia, along with China and 6 other states (North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, Syria and Venezuela), launched a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres asking for immediate and complete lifting of the sanctions that Moscow alleges now hamper the management of the pandemic. Guterres spoke in favour of eliminating sanctions to “ensure solidarity, not exclusion”. However, the UN General Assembly in fact adopted the resolution initiated by Ukraine and 6 other states (Lichtenstein, Norway, Switzerland, Ghana, Indonesia and Singapore) on “global solidarity”, unanimously adopted, including by Russia (April 2, 2020). Kyiv has criticized Russia's attempt to use the COVID-19crisis to escape “international legal responsibility”. Ukraine's UN ambassador Segiy Kyslytsya has argued that sanctions can be eliminated only after Russia stops the “violation of international law”, including “aggression, occupation and violation of human rights”.

In addition to lobbying within international forums, Russian authorities have introduced new instruments, such as health diplomacy to augment the diplomatic toolbox. Thus, Russia delivered Russian medical equipment to the US (March 30) at lower than the market price and, partially acquired by the Russian Direct Investment Fund, which is under Ukraine-related US sectoral sanctions since 2015. Other objectives than just giving a helping hand interfere. Specifically, there was a correlation between Russia's health intervention to aid the American people and the immediate initiation of a bilateral coordination of oil production (Reuters, April 3, 2020). The above-underlined correlation is evidenced by Donald Trump's decision to authorize the sale of respiratory equipment to Spain and Italy (, April 3, 2020), just a few days after receiving the Russian medical aid (including respiratory ventilators).  Did the US accept the Russian medical equipment because of a critical public health situation, after which Trump authorized selling to Spain equipment that is highly needed in the US? Most probably, the Kremlin’s gesture was a pretext to facilitate the arrangements for the oil negotiations the White House.

Before targeting the US, Russian health diplomacy was activated in Italy, then the hardest hit by COVID-19country in Europe. Russia's health intervention on Italian soil has generated a cascade of scandals related to the usefulness of Russian sanitary equipment, which “La Stampa” journalist, Jacopo Iacoboni, described, based on the quotation of Italian officials, “as totally useless in the proportion of 80 %”. Subsequently, Iacoboni repeatedly questioned the usefulness of this aid. Actually, Italy has the best decontamination capabilities in NATO and significantly better than those brought by Russia. This bolstered the hypothesis that the Russian units, located in Italy for an indefinite period, starting with March 22, are actually conducting espionage activities, along with the decontamination ones. The Italian media outlet did not give up its claims even after the head of the Russian Embassy in Rome, Sergey Razov exerted public pressure, followed by that coming from the chief spokesman of Ministry of Defense Major-General Igor Konashenkov. Some messages were threatening to the journalists of “La Stampa” – “Bad penny always comes back”. European Commissioner Vera Jurova has defended Italian journalists, and media freedom in Europe, against the threatening tone of Russian officials. Also on the same day, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense of Italy came with a joint statement. On the one hand, they appreciated the help granted by Russia. But, on the other one, they backed the media's right to criticize, without contradicting the magazine's articles about the dubious utility of the Russian sanitary equipment (Italian Ministry of Defense, April 3, 2020).

The whole controversial operation of Russian health diplomacy in Italy pursues two underlying objectives. The first objective aims to distract the attention of the Russian public from the crises at home, including the rapid spread of COVID-19in Russia, which on April 4 registered over 600 infections in a single day (in total - over 6 thousand cases on April 6). However, the debate about the much-needed equipment and specialists sent to the Western countries, when the Russian public health system is underfunded, begins to take shape. The second one is the comprehensive mediatization of its presence in Italy (Russian Ministry of Defense, April 4, 2020), to convince Italian decision-makers to pursue the suspension (in return for much-needed medical help) of the EU economic sanctions prolonged until July 31, 2020. This aspect of Russian health diplomacy is closer to the essence of “soft power”. Other dimensions of health diplomacy towards Italy are manifested in the Russian information war as an inherent part of the “hard power”, whose purpose is to damage the EU's informative cohesion. The existence of a Russian ‘disinformation machinery’ and its deployment during this crisis is vehemently denied by Russia. The Russian ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, compares it to the “instinct” of many in the West (including the EU) to automatically transfer responsibility to or blame others, which is almost always Russia. At the same time, the issue is seriously addressed by EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Josep Borell, who calls for “the intensification of joint efforts” to combat – “the info-demic with dangerous impact on public health”.

Health diplomacy of Russia and China in the eastern neighbourhood of the EU

In both Italy and the Western Balkans (Serbia), China's health diplomacy did not intersect or overlap with that of Russia, but rather anticipated and inspired the latter. In the March telephone calls, at the level of foreign ministries, the two countries emphasized the bilateral cooperation in counteracting the virus “in the spirit of the strategic partnership”, agreeing to “deepen the coordination of foreign policy”. According to the Chinese Ambassador in Moscow, Zhang Hanhui, the COVID-19crisis has revealed that Russia is among China's “true friends”.

In reality, Russia and China are far from best friends and mutuality is promoted more at the rhetorical than the substantive level. What the Russian side sees as a threat Beijing may view as benefit. Therefore, the Russian side considers that EU enlargement “is mechanical” and creates “multiple complications”. Besides, viewed from Moscow, the recent accession of North Macedonia to NATO is viewed as the result of “blackmailing and intimidation”. So far, the representatives of the Chinese communist regime have articulated none of these qualifications or caveats. On the contrary, they see opportunity in the accession of new states to the European market, where rules are standardized, predictable and precise for Chinese producers aiming to recover demand after the pandemic.

Crucially, China, unlike Russia, is not directly involved in any frozen or open conflict with the states in the eastern neighbourhood of the EU. That is why, during the pandemic, Chinese supplies arrived both in Moldova, governed by Russia-friendly political forces and in Ukraine, which is defending itself against Russian aggression. Against the backdrop of the Russian encroachment into Ukraine, China clearly demonstrates that it is prioritizing relations with Ukraine, after sending a second batch of humanitarian aid on April 1, 2020. According to Chinese media, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has expressed appreciation for the “effectiveness” of the Chinese model of response against the coronavirus. Meanwhile, Russia is endeavouring to cope with requests for help from partners in the Eurasian Union and the CIS area, where it has sent test systems or tests kits. In addition, the Russian presence is clearly visible in separatist regions, where it tries to prevent the spread of the virus - Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Georgia) or in Transnistria though the Moldovan constitutional authorities.

China can more easily score ‘soft power wins’ with its anti-COVID-19efforts in the eastern vicinity of the EU, focusing on Ukraine or Azerbaijan, where the "new silk road" is expanding or where there is under-exploited trade potential. Russia's options are limited - either to manifest anti-COVID-19mobilization capacity in all bordering areas or to not doing anything and potentially thus adversely impact in its positions and influence in the Eurasian Union. Russia's offers must be even more conclusive in those countries - Armenia and Belarus - that can also benefit from the EU's anti-COVID-19 financial assistance provided to the Eastern Partnership members.

Instead of conclusions ...

Although slow, Russia has imitated and deployed elements of Chinese health diplomacy. For its part, China has also adopted some Russian disinformation techniques to launch its recent media campaigns against the West. Both powers show mutual respect and study each other's behaviour, but the Chinese capacity to capitalize on the realities of the COVID-19crisis is far superior to the Russian one.

China's individual interests differ from those of Russia in post-crisis Europe. The ambition to build expansive trade opportunities for Chinese producers leaves China in a very different position to Russia that is principally concerned with smashing European sanctions. However, even if Beijing and Moscow pursue different pandemic-related objectives, where they converge is in encouraging (for somewhat different reasons) a further fragmentation or weakening of the EU and the "de-Europeanization" of political decision-making capacity within and among the Member States. A more fragmented European Union suits both China and Russia.

The eastern neighborhood of the EU has become a key site of geopolitical competition and one where Chinese and Russian health diplomacy is intensively pursued today. China may be selective in allocating its assistance; less so Russia because of the over-arching impulses behind Moscow’s approach to its “near abroad”, a kind of Russian “Monroe Doctrine”. The pandemic creates a unique situation in which the EU’s “soft power” in the Eastern Partnership has to contend with and potentially be overshadowed by both China and Russia. Thus, the ‘great game’ of geopolitics in European neighborhood has the potential to be decisively re-shaped by COVID-19. Cenuşa, Senior Contributor

Dionis Cenușa is a political scientist, researcher at the Institute of Political Sciences at Liebig-Justus University in Giessen, Germany, MA degree in Interdisciplinary European Studies from the College of Europe in Warsaw.
Areas of research: European Neighborhood Policy, EU-Moldova relationship, EU's foreign policy and Russia, migration and energy security.
Follow Dionis Cenușa on Twitter

IPN publishes in the Op-Ed rubric opinion pieces submitted by authors not affiliated with our editorial board. The opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily coincide with the opinions of our editorial board.

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