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Health Silk Road:’ China showers Europe with coronavirus aid as both spar with Trump

In the battle for European hearts and minds, China seems to be winning, at least for the moment.

Last month, Beijing’s ambassador to Estonia accused the Baltic nation’s intelligence service of having a “Cold War mindset” for labeling China a threat, warning that its “distorted” conclusions damaged bilateral relations.

Four weeks later, Estonian officials took part in a video conference hosted by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in which the Asian country’s health officials shared their experience in fighting the novel coronavirus.

The Estonians found the materials “very professional and targeted” and sought to distribute them widely, according to an account of the call posted by China’s embassy in Tallinn. “Estonia hopes to strengthen exchanges and cooperation with China to fight against Covid-19,” it said.

Estonia, a member of the European Union, is far from alone in its conflicted relations with China — nor in becoming a sudden target of Chinese largess. As Europe becomes the epicenter of the virus that first emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, Beijing is stepping up its outreach to individual governments there.

That’s coming at the very moment that the U.S. — and in some cases the EU — is seen to be turning away. The result is a battle for hearts and minds that China seems to be winning, at least for the moment.

“It’s great that China has this availability and that it is currently in a position to offer this kind of help,” said Lucrezia Poggetti, an analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin. Aid is much needed, she said, but in supplying it, China is consciously exercising its soft power. “There is a major propaganda push at play on the side of the Chinese with some willing enablers on the European side,” Poggetti said.

For China, the outreach to Europe is part of an effort to claw back an international leadership role after early cover-ups helped the virus spread well beyond its borders. President Xi Jinping’s government has sought to silence critics, including reporters and online commentators, and also spread conspiracy theories about where the virus originated.

Geopolitically, China’s move to brand itself as Europe’s savior aims to improve its standing on a global stage as both spar with the Trump administration. China and the U.S. have continued a wider fight for global influence — Beijing kicked out more than a dozen American journalists this week — while also seeking to deflect blame for their handling of the disease.

U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly referred to Covid-19 as a “Chinese virus,” and insisted Wednesday that the term wasn’t racist. He has has also angered Europe, barring all travel from the continent without consulting U.S. allies.

This week, Xi described China’s mass deployment of medical aid to Europe as an effort to further a “Health Silk Road,” stretching his Belt and Road trade-and-infrastructure initiative. Along with well-publicized state help for stricken countries such as Italy, aid is being channeled across the continent by private companies in the name of Beijing, helping to burnish China’s image from France to Ukraine.

On Wednesday, China’s ambassador in Athens delivered more than 50,000 protective masks to the Greek health minister. The Chinese embassy in Paris has said help was coming to France, while Bulgaria and Slovenia were also getting aid.

Xi told Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez in a call Tuesday that China would provide support to combat the epidemic. That same day, an aircraft carrying medical aid from China’s Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and billionaire Jack Ma’s foundation arrived at Spain’s Zaragoza Airport, the Chinese embassy said on Twitter.

Alibaba and the Jack Ma Foundation have also been involved in airlifting aid to Belgium and to Ukraine, which needs express tests to detect the coronavirus. “We agreed with China and we are grateful to them, especially grateful to Jack Ma as he helped us by financing the $80 million” cost of the medical kit, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said late Monday.

Others are turning to China out of desperation. Cyprus, Luxembourg and even Norway, which has the world’s largest sovereign wealth find, have called on Beijing for support or are considering doing so.

In Lithuania — another Baltic state that fell out with China over a critical security assessment — Health Minister Aurelijus Veryga said his government was reaching out to China to buy “several hundred” lung ventilators. “We don’t want to wait” for joint EU medical supply purchases, Veryga said Wednesday.

That kind of dependence on China is a warning sign for some.

‘Exposed’ to China

“This crisis has showed how exposed we in Romania and in Europe are to imports from China,” Romanian Economic Minister Virgil Popescu said this week, adding that the government in Bucharest aims to encourage domestic production of health-care products as a result.

China’s offers of donations to the EU centrally and to individual member states is “highly appreciated,” an EU spokesperson said in an emailed response to questions. Still, the bloc regarded the help as reciprocal for when China was in need and “we were doing our utmost” to support them.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen noted that the EU had donated 50 tons of equipment to China in January as she tweeted China’s announcement on Wednesday it would provide 2 million surgical masks, 200,000 N95 masks and 50,000 testing kits for Europe.

Not all aid is without strings. Some is in the form of purchase contracts that serve to help Chinese manufacturers striving to restore production after China’s weeks-long lockdown, said Poggetti at Merics. Other support serves a domestic political agenda in Europe.

‘Not Alone’

Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, who was instrumental in Italy becoming the first Group of Seven nation to sign up to the Belt and Road Initiative last year, staged a live Facebook video last week to show the arrival of medical equipment and a team of Chinese doctors. “We are not alone, there are people in the world who want to help Italy,” he said.

In a speech Sunday, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic praised China effusively for its support in helping his country battle the virus, and contrasted China’s provision of medical aid to the “fairy tale” of solidarity from Europe. Serbia is a recipient of Chinese investments whose bid to join the EU remains far in the future.

For Gao Zhikai, a former Chinese diplomat and translator to late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, China’s aid for Europe is a matter of vital international cooperation, since “in the fight against Covid-19, mankind is in the same boat.”

“Europe does not need to be charmed,” he said in an interview. “Many European countries need assistance and solidarity. For China, helping Italy and other European countries in these difficult times is the right thing to do.”

It is too soon to say whether China’s European outreach will have a lasting impact, said Poggetti. China’s one-party state and record on human rights is generally viewed negatively in Europe, but its actions during the current crisis may help win over some.

In certain sections of society, “the image of China as savior while the U.S. and Europe leave us alone is really resonating,” she said.

More coronavirus coverage from Fortune:

How to prepare your personal finances for a coronavirus recession
—The coronavirus could upend America’s business relationships to China
—10 questions about the 2020 election during the coronavirus pandemic, answered
—3 months before the coronavirus, a war game showed we weren’t ready
—How hackers are exploiting the coronavirus—and how to protect yourself
—The coronavirus pandemic could mark a huge shift for the fitness industry
—Listen to Leadership Next, a Fortune podcast examining the evolving role of CEO
—WATCH: The race is on to create a coronavirus antiviral drug and vaccine


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