Brussels – The EU’s chief diplomat says he assured China’s foreign minister the bloc does not want a “cold war”, as it accused Beijing of waging a coronavirus disinformation campaign.
Brussels says China and Russia have sought to undermine European democracy and burnish their own reputations during the pandemic with “targeted influence operations and disinformation campaigns”.
The unusually blunt accusation came in an official EU strategy paper for tackling what officials say is a “flood” of false healthcare claims, conspiracy theories, fraud and hate speech surrounding the pandemic.
The report was published on Wednesday, a day after EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell held video talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
Borrell on Wednesday insisted the EU was “not starting anything” with China, and said he had reassured Wang during their talks.
“I told him: ‘Don’t worry, Europe is not going to embark on any kind of Cold War with China’,” Borrell said.
The report, which also calls on web giants such as Twitter and Facebook to do more to tackle disinformation, accuses Moscow and Beijing of “seeking to undermine democratic debate and exacerbate social polarisation, and improve their own image in the COVID-19 context”.
The row raises tensions ahead of a video summit later this month between EU Council President Charles Michel and European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen and Chinese leaders.
EU-Chinese relations have hit a rocky patch as Brussels struggles to calibrate its response to Beijing’s growing assertiveness under President Xi Jinping.
The bloc has characterised Beijing as a “systemic rival” — to the disgruntlement of Chinese officials — and sought to challenge it on human rights issues such as Tibet and Hong Kong.
But the EU has struggled to maintain a united front as 27 national governments pursue their own political and economic interests with the Asian giant.
Borrell, who in recent weeks has called for a “more robust” EU stance on China and warned Beijing does not share European values, said governments needed to wise up.