Brussels - The EU's diplomatic chief has called for more resources to fight disinformation from China, warning that Europe needed to stop being naive in its dealings with Beijing.
EU foreign affairs high representative Josep Borrell, speaking on Tuesday after video talks with the Chinese foreign minister, told European countries they needed to back up their preaching on disinformation with money.
He said Chinese minister Wang Yi had rebuffed his concerns about Beijing's clampdown on freedoms in Hong Kong, reiterating the communist government's lines about boosting security in the financial hub.
Coronavirus has fanned the flames of a geopolitical information war, with the West accusing Beijing and Moscow of promoting false or misleading narratives about the pandemic which began in China late last year.
On Wednesday, Borrell and EU vice-president for values and transparency Vera Jourova are to issue a statement on a strategy to counter disinformation inspired by the pandemic.
"Foreign actors and certain third countries, in particular Russia and China, have engaged in targeted influence operations and disinformation campaigns around COVID-19," it says.
A copy of the statement seen by AFP accuses Moscow and Beijing of "seeking to undermine democratic debate and exacerbate social polarisation, and improve their own image in the COVID-19 context."
- Provide, don't preach -
The EU operates a small task force with a website analysing and debunking misleading stories, but it is primarily focused on disinformation emanating from Russia.
"For sure we have to allocate more resources in the fight against disinformation," Borrell told reporters.
"I think we have to work more on that and not only fighting disinformation, trying to counterattack the fakes but to present a positive narrative."
EU member states are currently haggling over the bloc's next long-term budget and with the pandemic hammering economies, there is huge pressure to find savings.
But Borrell urged national governments to do more on disinformation, saying he needed "not only preaching but providing".
"If you want to do something please allocate resources to it," he said.
Tuesday's talks with Wang were in part to prepare a video summit between EU Council President Charles Michel and European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen and Chinese leaders later this month.
Borrell said he raised EU concerns about Beijing's plan to impose a national security law on Hong Kong, which Western governments say will curb the city's cherished freedoms.
But he said there were no concessions from Wang, who restated the Chinese position that the law was needed to ensure security in Hong Kong.
EU-Chinese relations are bumping through a rocky patch as Brussels struggles to calibrate its response to Beijing's growing assertiveness under President Xi Jinping.
The bloc has characterised China as a "systemic rival" -- as well as a partner on issues such as climate change -- but it has struggled to find a unified response as national governments pursue their own interests with the Asian giant.
"Some weeks ago in an interview with the French press I said that Europe has been too naive in its relations with China," Borrell said.
"I think we have to build relations, realistic relations, we need realistic relations with China in order to defend our values and interests."
By Damon Wake