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'Mask diplomacy': EU-China ties tested during coronavirus pandemic

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Recent moves by Beijing to provide masks to EU countries have been dubbed "mask diplomacy"
Recent moves by Beijing to provide masks to EU countries have been dubbed "mask diplomacy"   -   Copyright  Vincent Yu/AP Photos
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Coronavirus has put EU-China relations back in the spotlight.

Recent moves by Beijing to provide masks to EU countries have been dubbed "mask diplomacy" and seen as a way to keep trade ties alive, especially in the race to win 5G contracts in Europe.

However, the EU’s industry chief recalled that Europe had also helped China.

"Let us remember Europe has been helped by China but we’ve also come up with goods (for China) worth several billion euros," Thierry Breton, European Commissioner for Internal Market told MEPs.

"Now we see Europe become the epicentre after China and China is helping us. When it comes to France and Germany - they’ve provided more masks than China has."

The suspected origins of the coronavirus outbreak in markets has prompted some MEPs to ask for more protection, especially considering that an EU-China investment agreement should be signed this year.

"We can not commit to a trade system that puts at risk the Chinese people lives and of everyone else," said MEP Francisco Guerreiro.

"We should show a tough stance in the negotiations to condition this country, in a constructive way, to adopt measures of sanitary control that will protect them and all of us."

The EU’s foreign policy chief who previously criticised China’s "politics of generosity" has taken a more conciliatory tone this week saying.

"Through whatever changes are in store, the EU must remain a unifying factor, by promoting joint efforts with China and the United States to address the pandemic and its consequences," said Josep Borrell

Any apparent propaganda wars between Brussels and Beijing will need to be put aside as international trade will be crucial in fighting the looming economic crisis.

"How are we going to rebuild devastated economies, how are we going to get people back to jobs, how are we going to create those jobs, how are we going to get people's lives back together?" asked Shada Islam, Director of Europe and Geopolitics at Friends of Europe.

"That will require, as many are saying at the moment, that we work together to make sure that there is no protectionism, that people are still engaging in free and open trade and that they are investing in each others economies," she adds.

The negotiations for closer Chinese-European relations have been dragging for seven years, a legacy of the previous European Commission that saw China as a systemic rival.