China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs State Counselor and senior diplomat Wang Yi said Monday that the country will continue opening its economy to the world. Along with expanding access to foreign investors, Wang said that China has shortened the Negative List, which details entities restricted or prohibited to international firms. According to Reuters, Wang also emphasized China’s pledge to uphold multilateralism with “some countries” accused of turning the United Nations General Assembly into a “theatre for self-serving political shows and an arena to promote conflict and confrontation and divide the whole world,” and repeatedly attacked the United States without explicitly addressing them by name. Wang then promised China’s intent to cooperate multilaterally on coronavirus vaccine research, assuring that the Chinese government “will contribute to the accessibility and affordability of vaccines in all countries.”
Wang’s announcement follows growing impatience from the European Union, which demands that China do more to allow international competition in large sectors of its economy. In 2012, the E.U. began negotiating the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment to address China’s desire for full E.U. market access. However, the E.U. alleged unfair competition and discriminatory business practices from Chinese-owned companies. The E.U. also demanded fewer subsidies for Chinese businesses in Europe and a “level playing field” in China. Despite hopes for an agreement by the year’s end, after almost a decade of little progress and increasing tension, E.U. officials are doubtful of achieving this goal. After speaking with Chinese President Xi Jinping, European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen said, “China has to convince us that it is worth having an investment agreement.”
Although China claims historical significance in opening their economy, critics say they let their own heavily subsidized actors saturate the markets before allowing foreign investors to participate. “If the Chinese side gives no market access in certain areas,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, “that will naturally mean that access to the European market will also be more restricted.” This statement came at the Summit for E.U. leaders Friday during discussions regarding dependency on China. Merkel and other world leaders concluded that the E.U. executive should identify strategic dependencies, “particularly in the most sensitive industrial systems such as for health,” and “propose measures to reduce these dependencies.”
Along with these allegations, earlier this year, the E.U. diplomatic service reported Chinese disinformation campaigns depicting China formidably in contrast to feeble E.U. countries. According to Bloomberg, in France, the Chinese embassy posted an accusation that French retirement homes neglect elderly patients on its website, while sock puppet accounts in Italy claimed that the coronavirus originated in Europe.
Foreign Minister Wang’s statements also indicate rising tension between China and the United States. At the U.N. General Assembly last Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump accused China of controlling the World Health Organization and both bodies of disseminating false information regarding the spread of COVID-19. Tensions over the pandemic, as well as Donald Trump’s continuing condemnations, have further strained relations.
Prior to the pandemic, China-U.S. relations were contentious. Since taking the American presidency in 2017, Donald Trump has aggressively approached negotiations in a manner that differs from other world leaders, demanding new trade deals and accusing China of stealing intellectual property and technology. Following further allegations of unfair trade practice and mistreatment of American companies, in July 2018, Trump imposed tariffs on $50 billion of Chinese goods. China responded with 25% tariffs on $50 billion of U.S. exports, marking the beginning of a trade war. In mid-January, Trump and Chinese Vice Premier Liu signed a deal agreeing that the U.S. would cut tariffs imposed on Chinese goods. In exchange, China would purchase more American farm, energy, and manufacturing goods and address some complaints about theft of intellectual property.
Donald Trump has become increasingly critical of China as the coronavirus propagated throughout the world. In a Labor Day press conference, Trump discussed punishment for their “sending” COVID-19 overseas. According to Market Watch, he accused China of “cheating” with their entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO), and suggested the country is buying American products as a form of bribery because “they know I’m not happy.” Trump also mentioned ending “reliance on China once and for all” by “decoupling” the American economy from China or “putting in massive tariffs like I’ve been doing already.” “We’re going to end our reliance on China, because we can’t rely on China,” Donald Trump said.
In many ways, the U.S. and E.U. share concerns regarding China. Both groups seek equitable trade deals, fairer conditions for their businesses, and mitigated dependency. European bodies like Britain, France, and Slovenia have followed the U.S. in moving to restrict investments in Huawei, a notorious Chinese telecommunications company. Last year, confrontation between China and the Czech Republic escalated when a Chinese ambassador demanded a Czech diplomat evict a Taiwanese representative from a diplomatic meeting. After refusing to do so, China condemned the diplomat, accusing infringement on their territory. The U.S. has also shared E.U. support for Taiwan’s autonomy, as well as Hong Kong’s, under the “One Country, two Systems” principle.
Both the U.S. and E.U. have complained that China has dishonored deals with them as well. Besides China’s previously-discussed refusal to participate equally in trade, the country has also failed to follow up on promises with European bodies. Prague and Beijing had initially agreed to be sister cities, and China pledged to send pandas for the city’s zoo. However, the country neglected this promise, prompting Prague to find a different sister city in Taiwan. China also provoked its closest European trading partner, Germany, after multiple Chinese companies took stakes in German technology firms ranging from robot producers to power companies. In response, Germany tightened the regulations on these acquisitions.
Some E.U. countries have also expressed resentment over how China has handled the coronavirus. According to the New York Times, Chinese relations in countries like Spain and the Netherlands have declined due to China’s obfuscation of containment and its failing “mask diplomacy.” Public opinion towards China in these countries has also fallen after purchasing Chinese protective gear and supplies that were deemed ineffective.
China’s limited action in negotiations provides crucial context for the European Union and United States’ indignation over how China has handled the coronavirus. International authorities may associate weak virus containment attempts with perceived apathy in negotiations. While widespread ridicule does not prove wrongdoing, China should strive to remove this stigma by acting more quickly on demands and acknowledging that its international credibility is at risk.
The U.S. and China are some of the world’s biggest participants in the race for an approved vaccine. Claiming to have “understanding and support” from the World Health Organization, China boasts 11 vaccines in clinical trials and four in Phase III of testing. Since July, China has administered experimental vaccines to hundreds of thousands of people, particularly those deemed essential workers. This was done under a controversial government emergency program enabling testing to bypass clinical trials, which are crucial for demonstrating drugs’ safety and efficacy. While the candidates in Phase III trials are closely tracked and monitored, it is unclear whether China is taking these steps with each person receiving it through the emergency program.
This ethical challenge is compounded by issues of consent. Employees at vaccine companies and companies owned by the Chinese state may feel pressured into taking an experimental vaccine. Those employees are also requested to sign a nondisclosure agreement preventing any discussion of the vaccine with news media. Dr. Kim Mulholland, a pediatrician at Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Melbourne, Australia and contributor to many COVID-19 vaccine trials, said that her “worry for the employees is it may be difficult for them to refuse.”
Previous failure to fulfill agreements and efforts to blame other bodies for the spread of COVID-19 have contributed to tension between China and the E.U. While China promised an affordable and accessible vaccine, other countries, particularly those with strained relations due to conflict over the pandemic, may be skeptical of its efficacy and safety. As European Commission President Von der Leyer expressed, China must prove the value of their negotiations. If the country is willing to increase its efforts to meet agreements in trade deals and promote equal opportunities for foreign businesses, the U.S. should strive to maintain negotiations. Perhaps the U.S. and E.U. can utilize their similar concerns on trade and COVID-19 to collaborate and discern appropriate methods to encourage China’s adherence to agreements. Punishments that could further strain relations with the world’s second largest economy should be minimized. Despite ongoing tension between the U.S. and China, we must remember that these countries managed to reach an agreement for both bodies’ mutual benefit. All parties must respect the sensitivity of relations and desires of each involved, and strive to work cohesively towards peaceful and constructive resolutions.
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