Australia and the United States are leading a campaign for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. Senior officials in both countries are seeking to determine if the virus originated in nature or in a Chinese laboratory. They are also calling on the Chinese government to account for its handling of the initial outbreak in the city of Wuhan.
In Europe, where the pandemic has killed more than 100,000 people and caused economic devastation on a scale not seen since the Second World War, political leaders have been deafeningly silent on demanding accountability from China. While a handful of European officials have agreed in principle that there should be an investigation at some undetermined point in the future, most appear afraid to challenge China directly.
The equivocation of European leaders is a reflection not only of Europe's geopolitical weakness and economic overdependence on China, but also of a moral vacuum in which they refuse to stand up for Western values.
A few days after European officials caved in to pressure from China and watered down an EU report on Chinese efforts to deflect blame for the coronavirus pandemic, the EU ambassador to China, Nicolas Chapuis, allowed the Chinese government to edit an op-ed article signed by him and the 27 Ambassadors of EU member states, to mark the 45th anniversary of diplomatic relations with China.
The EU authorized the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to remove references to the origins and the spread of the coronavirus from the article, published in China Daily, an English-language daily newspaper owned by the Communist Party of China.
An EU spokesperson said that the EU allowed China to revise the op-ed because Brussels "considered it important to communicate EU policy priorities, notably on climate change and sustainability..."
Meanwhile, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen backed calls for an investigation into the origin of the coronavirus, but she avoided mentioning China by name and was careful not to offer specifics, such as who should lead the probe or when it might be conducted.
In a May 1 interview with the American broadcaster CNBC, von der Leyen used meaningless "diplomatese" apparently not to offend China:
"You never know when the next virus is starting, so we all want for the next time, we have learned our lesson and we've established a system of early warning that really functions and the whole world has to contribute to that."
In Sweden, Health Minister Lena Hallengren was slightly more forceful. In a reply to parliament on April 29, she called on the European Union to probe the origin of the pandemic:
"When the global situation of Covid-19 is under control, it is both reasonable and important that an international, independent investigation be conducted to gain knowledge about the origin and spread of the coronavirus.
"It is also important that the entire international community's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, including the World Health Organisation, is investigated. Sweden is happy to raise this issue within the framework of EU cooperation."
In France, President Emmanuel Macron questioned China's handling of the coronavirus outbreak. "Given the choices made and what China is today, which I respect, let's not be so naive as to say it's been much better at handling this," Macron told the Financial Times on April 16. "We don't know. There are clearly things that have happened that we don't know about." He stopped short of calling for an investigation.
Meanwhile, the French government allowed the Chinese telecom company Huawei to supply parts for its 5G next-generational mobile network. The concession was made after China threatened to retaliate against European companies in the Chinese market.
In Britain, which now has the highest coronavirus death toll in Europe, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been strangely silent on China. He continues to resist pressure from parliament to reverse his controversial decision to allow Huawei to supply parts for the UK's 5G mobile network.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab vowed to ask "hard questions" and threatened the end of "business as usual" with Beijing. He has not, however, announced any punitive measures against China.
Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, when asked by LBC radio if China should be held accountable, replied:
"I think it does. But I think the time for the post-mortem on this is after we've all got it under control and have come through it and our economies are back to normal. Only by being open and transparent will we learn about it, and China needs to be open and transparent about what it learned, and its shortcomings, but also its successes."
Former Prime Minister Theresa May, in a May 6 op-ed published by The Times, called for moral equivalence when dealing with the United States and China. "A world in which a few 'strong men' square up to each other and expect everyone else to choose between them would be a dangerous one," she said, apparently referring to U.S. President Donald J. Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Writing for The Spectator, Scottish political commentator Stephen Daisley lamented the government's dithering approach to China. In an essay, "Our Toothless Response to China is Embarrassing," he listed a series of measures the British government could take:
"No country with a skerrick of self-respect can allow this behavior to go unpunished. I have already suggested some punitive measures designed to wound the regime's pride without harming the Chinese people: cancel the Huawei deal; pass a Magnitsky-style Act targeting senior CPC figures; champion the Uyghurs at every opportunity (e.g. rename the London street that houses the Chinese embassy after a Uyghur political prisoner); and recognize Taiwan as an independent nation. All I would add, upon reflection, is this: grant British citizenship to Hong Kongers born before 1 July 1997, their children and grandchildren. Even if just a fraction of Hong Kong's residents took up the opportunity, every one would be a small humiliation for the dictatorship. Given the government's softly-softly approach, we probably shouldn't get our hopes up for anything beyond Huawei cancellation, and even that's far from guaranteed. Even absent the ministerial gumption to impose sanctions on Beijing, there will have to be a strategic rethink of our relationship with the People's Republic. If this is how it behaves in a US-led world order, it is unlikely to be any more benevolent as a rival (or replacement) superpower.
"While abandoning global free trade and economic interdependence would prove a costly mistake, it would be just as foolish to remain in hock to a regime that, in the most generous reading of events, caused thousands of avoidable British deaths to save face. However, reshoring and rebuilding key manufacturing sectors is only a partial solution. We need to trade but our trading priorities are subject to political and security considerations. China is our second-largest trading partner while India is our sixth. It would be in the UK's interests to reverse that ordering. Of course, to make a change like that you need a government with a bit of backbone and it's not at all clear that we have one."
In Germany, Development Minister Gerd Müller said that the Chinese government "had to show complete openness in this world crisis, especially with regard to the origin of the virus." The statement was the most forceful of any German cabinet member to date. Chancellor Angela Merkel distanced herself from the remark, saying that it had not been discussed in the cabinet:
"I believe that the more transparent China is about the history of this virus, the better it is for all of us around the world who want to learn from it. But we didn't have this specific discussion."
German commentator Constantin Eckner noted that the coronavirus has exposed Germany's dependency on its trade relations with China, which Germany needs to overcome the current crisis:
"For years now, Germany has been leaning on China for cheap supply and as a market for its exports. Following the 2008 financial crisis, when most of Europe was suffering, Germany kept itself rather unscathed thanks to a strong export-orientated economy and partly thanks to China. Germany was not concerned about any geo-economic advances Beijing was making. It cared little about the 16+1 forum with Central and Eastern European countries launched in 2012 or the Belt and Road Initiative unveiled in 2013, and the 'Made in China 2025' strategy intended to establish Chinese dominance in emerging technologies....
"Publicly Berlin has positioned itself against Xi Jinping's 'mask diplomacy' since the coronavirus outbreak in Europe, condemning attempts to exploit the crisis politically or economically. But behind closed doors, senior officials acknowledge that the domestic economy needs China just like it did in the aftermath of 2008, or possibly even more. Germany has the highest export ratio among the G20 — about 47 per cent of its GDP. A demand shock of global proportion puts a lot of manufacturers in a tough spot. As China is recovering from the pandemic faster than the rest of the world, Germany might end up tying itself closer to the economic giant than before the crisis....
"These desperate times could make Merkel forge a new alliance with Xi, accepting that Germany cannot survive without the Chinese market and financial firepower, but also knowing that Beijing will not be shy to exploit such a dependency to further its geoeconomic goals. For its future prosperity, Germany may be forced to look east."
Europe's most forceful action against China has been taken by the Netherlands, which recently renamed its de facto embassy in Taiwan. The Netherlands Trade and Investment Office is now called "Netherlands Office Taipei." China responded by threatening to halt shipments of medical supplies, a threat that could ring hollow: the Netherlands recently recalled 600,000 substandard medical masks that had been imported from China.
While Europeans cower in the face of Communist China, they have found time to issue threats against the only democracy in the Middle East. On April 30, eleven European ambassadors to Israel warned Jerusalem of "severe consequences" if it goes ahead with plans to annex parts of the West Bank.
In a lengthy essay published by Die Welt, Mathias Döpfner, CEO of Axel Springer, Europe's largest publishing company, argued that the time has come for Europe to choose between the United States and China:
"Once a treatment for the virus has been found, the debates about shutdown and easing restrictions have passed, and the recession has reared its ugly head, nothing less than the world order itself must be clarified. Or to be more specific: the matter of alliance. Where does Europe stand? On the side of the US or China?...
"America has clearly decided to pursue a policy of 'decoupling' from China. If Europe does not want to see its freedom subverted by Beijing, it must decide which of the two countries to ally with, and it must do so soon.
"We are told time and again that it is not a case of either-or, that it's about having the best of both worlds. The opposite is true. There is no need for finely crafted rhetoric here, we need to make a fundamental political decision. China or the US. It is no longer possible to go with both....
"Europe has been avoiding the alliance question for a long time, but it is now time to make that decision. This does not directly have to do with the coronavirus crisis. And it certainly has nothing to do with the question of where the virus originated.
"The crisis focuses the way we look at long-standing dependencies, even those in so-called vital supply chains, how we see fundamental differences in communication and crisis management, and our regard for what is ultimately a completely different concept of humanity....
"Europe has failed so far to clearly state where it stands, preferring to play piggy in the middle, able to tip the scales either way. Even believing its opportunism to be a sign of independence and courage. However, Europe will never be able to hold onto its position as everybody's darling. When it comes to questions of world order, you cannot have your cake and eat it....
"Europe's economy likes making deals with China and does not want to be interrupted in those pursuits. Politicians are dithering. The Italians have even been willing to subjugate themselves to China's ridiculous euphemism of the 'New Silk Road.'
"We increasingly hear words of admiration in Europe about the speed and efficiency of the Chinese market economy, the rigorous nature of its crisis management. All the time gladly ignoring the fact that China's successes rest on a highly perfected system of digital surveillance that translates the perversions of the KGB and Stasi into the 21st century....
"Economic relations with China might seem harmless to many Europeans today, but they could soon lead to political dependence and ultimately to the end of a free and liberal Europe. The European Union has the choice. But above all Germany, Europe's economic motor, has the choice.
"Should we make a pact with an authoritarian regime or should we work to strengthen a community of free, constitutionally governed market economies with liberal societies? It is remarkable that German politics, with its love of moralizing, seems to throw its values out the window when dealing with China. What is at stake here is nothing less than what kind of society we want to live in and our concept of humanity....
"If current European and, above all, German policy on China continues, this will lead to a gradual decoupling from America and a step-by-step infiltration and subjugation by China. Economic dependence will only be the first step. Political influence will follow.
"In the end, it is quite simple. What kind of future do we want for Europe? An alliance with an imperfect democracy or with a perfect dictatorship? It should be an easy decision for us to make. It is about more than just money. It is about our freedom, about Article 1 of Germany's Basic Law, the greatest legal term that ever existed: human dignity."