Europe's diplomatic push to pivot to China amid the coronavirus epidemic has backfired, after an open letter calling for warmer ties with Beijing fell foul of Chinese censors.
China Daily, the mouthpiece of the country's ruling Communist Party, on Wednesday published a letter by EU ambassadors calling for greater cooperation with Beijing, in what appeared to be a European attempt to seize upon the lack of U.S. global leadership during the pandemic.
To the consternation of several EU diplomats, however, Brussels bowed to Chinese demands that the published version delete references to the deadly coronavirus originating in China and spreading worldwide from there.
A spokesperson for the European External Action Service, the EU's foreign service, said Brussels regretted that the original letter was "not published in full by the China Daily" and noted that it could not have been published without a green light from China's foreign ministry.
In a sign of discontent among EU countries, the Beijing embassies of countries such as Germany, France and Italy published the full letter with the reference to the disease originating in China and spreading from there. By contrast, Gunnar Wiegand, managing director for Asia and the Pacific at the EEAS, retweeted the censored version in the China Daily.
The offending sentence had referred to "... the outbreak of the coronavirus in China, and its subsequent spread to the rest of the world over the past three months ..."
The EEAS said it agreed to the words being cut with "considerable reluctance" and only relented because it reckoned it was important to stress the benefits of EU-China cooperation on "climate change and sustainability, human rights, multilateralism and the global response to the coronavirus."
The ambassadors' letter was conspicuous for its lack of criticism, however. While cursorily referring to "human rights," the ambassadors avoided mentioning Chinese internment camps in Xinjiang, crackdowns on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and the disappearance of whistleblowers.
The fracas over one excised sentence fragment undermines the claim in the EU's letter that "our partnership has become mature enough to allow frank discussion" over differences between the two camps.
The EEAS spokesperson insisted that the "EU continues to advocate for a free press — and other human rights and freedoms."
More broadly, the letter called for the EU and China to team up in the global fight against the coronavirus and steer the economic recovery, vowing to cooperate on everything from vaccine research to multilateral trade.
"It is already clear that the pandemic will reshape our world. But precisely how will depend on the choices that we make today," wrote the ambassadors from the EU's 27 countries and from the EU's own mission.
While their proposals were not novel — they advocated investing in green technologies, debt relief for poor countries and finalizing an investment deal — the timing of their remarks is significant.
Just as President Donald Trump is weighing ways to make China pay for covering up the first cases of the coronavirus, and one day after a Republican senator called on the U.S. to "abolish" the World Trade Organization for being soft on China, the EU envoys insisted they would not seek to decouple from China but would instead push for a "close partnership" with Beijing.
"We share a common aspiration to bring our relationship to an even more productive level in the years to come, as connectivity increases between Europe and Asia," they wrote.
The Chinese embassy to the EU had no immediate comment on the remarks by the EEAS on the handling of the ambassadors' letter.
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