It should have been a productive year for relations between Asia's biggest economy and Europe.
China had secured an interim truce in its protracted trade war with the United States in January. And it had turned its focus back to the European Union, seeking to reassure Brussels that its interests would not be damaged by the trade deal with Washington.
EU leaders meeting in Brussels in December had discussed an ambitious agenda on climate change and the economy, calling for cooperation from Beijing.
Then the new coronavirus hit. Its rapid spread from the first cases in central China in December to a global pandemic has thrown the world economy into recession, according to the International Monetary Fund. It has also brought Beijing's political and diplomatic agenda to a sudden halt - 2020 had been dubbed the "year of Europe" by the Chinese leadership - with two key gatherings due to be held in Beijing in March and April postponed, and negotiations on a long-awaited bilateral investment treaty delayed.
The pandemic has also fuelled unease among European diplomats over China's approach, with the top EU envoy warning the bloc to be ready for a "struggle for influence" with Beijing amid a targeted strategy to help certain countries with medical supplies and support.
China, where the coronavirus crisis appears to be easing, has sent badly needed supplies and teams of medical experts to some of the worst-hit countries in Europe, including Italy, as well as nations like Serbia, responding to a call for help. It has also offered emergency aid in other regions as the number of Covid-19 cases continues to climb - more than 560,000 people have been infected with the pneumonia-like illness worldwide, and it has killed over 26,000 so far.
In Europe, Beijing has been reaching out, with President Xi Jinping talking to state and EU leaders by phone, pledging continued support and for health officials to share their experience in battling the virus. He also proposed a "health Silk Road" to Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte - in addition to Beijing's global infrastructure scheme the Belt and Road Initiative - as a way of boosting trust and cooperation.
Chinese medical aid has been welcomed by countries struggling to cope with the crisis, but there is growing concern over Beijing's narrative in Europe.
Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign policy chief, on Monday fired a warning shot at China's "politics of generosity", calling on the bloc to "defend Europe against detractors" and show that "solidarity is not an empty phrase".
Other EU diplomats have said there was a sense that China's leadership preferred to deal directly with European countries rather than through the EU, which caused disunity within the bloc.
Alice Ekman, senior analyst in charge of China and Asia at the European Union Institute for Security Studies, said China would continue its approach in Europe at multiple levels - EU, subregional and individual - during the crisis.
"Strong activism of China's diplomacy will probably still be observed at both bilateral and multilateral level, and Beijing will bridge its existing diplomatic initiatives with the global Covid-19 fight as much as possible," she said.
EU members that received help from Beijing could be tempted to support further cooperation with China, Ekman said. And Beijing "may possibly ask for favours later on, in particular, support for its position in multilateral settings", she said, adding that its influence was likely to be consolidated in non-EU countries.
Ekman said China may try to seize more economic and financial opportunities in Europe, as it did during the global financial crisis in 2008 and the subsequent euro-zone debt crisis, with investments in the Port of Pireaus in Greece, Portugal's power grid, and European sovereign bonds.
"When the medical and sanitary urgency is over … Europe (will be left) in a difficult economic situation. It is likely that China will shift its offer from medical and sanitary assistance to economic and financial assistance - positioning itself as an alternative to the EU in terms of investment opportunities, and potentially as the 'saviour' of a failed Europe," Ekman said.
Sven Biscop, director of the Europe in the World Programme at the Egmont-Royal Institute for International Relations in Brussels, said China's aid was welcomed "regardless of the political agenda attached", but it would not help to conceal its initial attempts to cover up the outbreak.
"Within the EU at least, Beijing's charm offensive will therefore not really change the image of China as a power whose assertions always have to be taken with a pinch of salt (including its reported numbers of infected and deceased people)," Biscop said.
Mario Esteban, a senior analyst on the Asia-Pacific with the Elcano Royal Institute in Madrid, agreed that while cooperation was welcome, European complaints were focused on Beijing's narrative that its model had helped to fight the outbreak, though it had suppressed early warnings about the disease.
"Moreover, Chinese officials have been spreading fake news about the coronavirus and glossing over the most controversial dimensions of their measures against this disease in order to present China as a role model," Esteban said.
The pandemic has also put a five-year action plan for bilateral relations on hold, according to a European diplomatic source. Beijing and Brussels were to unveil the plan at this month's summit which has been postponed, the source said.
The delays could cast a shadow over another high-profile summit between all 27 EU heads of state and Xi due to be held in Leipzig, Germany, in September. That summit was partly aimed at countering Beijing's infrastructure and investment push in 17 Central and Eastern European countries, which has also raised concerns about disunity within the bloc.
But Lucrezia Poggetti, a researcher with Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin, cautioned against talk of disunity.
"What I see as more concerning for EU unity is the behaviour of populist, Eurosceptic leaders who keenly push false narratives that contrast China's support with what they portray as a lack of EU solidarity," Poggetti said.
"The EU has also started to communicate more proactively on social media the ways in which EU countries are supporting each other to debunk those false narratives about the lack of EU solidarity," she said. "Continue raising awareness and helping each other in Europe is the way to go."
Ding Chun, a professor with the Centre for European Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, also said "blaming China" was not the answer.
"Those remarks in fact reflect the problem of a lack of confidence and trust in some people's minds in the EU," Ding said. "These people should revise their mindsets and do their own work to stick together to contain the virus rather than conjecturing and blaming China."
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