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EU-China relationship: the end of extramarital affairs
Four conflicts today are redefining the EU-China relationship. This relationship was built on several intersecting theatres — money, power and the several rendezvouses of their extramarital affairs. As along as the dalliance was economic, the EU’s dance with China strengthened over the years, and handed cheap goods to its citizens. As long as China was a business destination, a provider of cheap goods and investor of capital, the strengthening bonds delivered export advantages to China and its people. A unique win-win, in which the EU blindfolded itself to the values it stands on, underlined the relationship. The EU ran into China’s arms at the cost of its long-term relationships of values. This cost was worth it — the pleasures of economic globalisation were many, its discontents few.
And then, the Chinese Communist Party lost its bearings under President Xi Jinping. Or, let’s just say, the Chairman of Everything, now intoxicated by his own majesty got bored of his economic affairs and returned to the fidelity of false grandeur — the emperor of China now wants to become the emperor of the world. Until two years ago, the change in stance was small and incremental. From 2018 onwards, Xi weaponised technological power through Huawei and ZTE in 5G. Now, he is following through by turning all terms of global engagement into missiles — diplomatic, military, trade, human rights, multilateralism. The EU had no option, he thought. The 5G equipment makers are not only the cheapest but also the most technologically advanced. From threatening every country around its borders but its like-minded hyphenations Pakistan and North Korea to capturing United Nations institutions such as WHO recently, China has opened its mouth, bared its teeth and exposed its bad breath to the EU.
"Until two years ago, the change in stance was small and incremental. From 2018 onwards, Xi weaponised technological power through Huawei and ZTE in 5G. Now, he is following through by turning all terms of global engagement into missiles — diplomatic, military, trade, human rights, multilateralism"
All this while the four conflicts that the EU had swept under the carpet became stronger. What Xi wanted to do with his tech intrusions, using EU as a playfield and its citizens as subjects of experiment, is now getting clearer to the actors who finally matter in EU — the people, who are increasingly embracing a new nationalism. Suddenly, a new awareness of the abuses China is inflicting in its own backyard at Xinjian and Tibet, Hong Kong, and the potential invasion of Taiwan is getting a greater sympathy and expressing itself through protests in Paris recently. These will now expand to Berlin, Rome, Athens, Madrid. The four fault lines of conflict have now opened out.
"A new awareness of the abuses China is inflicting in its own backyard at Xinjian and Tibet, Hong Kong, and the potential invasion of Taiwan is getting a greater sympathy and expressing itself through protests in Paris recently"
Conflicts of values. For the EU to have overlooked human rights abuses of China in favour of financial interests has exposed the group to be little more than self-serving, undependable, illiberal entities. By doing so, the EU has hyphenated itself with the likes of North Korea. Preaching human rights on the one hand and sleeping with human rights abuser on the other has turned its moral compass south-north. “It is clear that China does not share our values. Democracy, freedom, and the rule of law,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said. “We see this in Hong Kong, where the new security law undermines its autonomy. And the liberty of its citizens. With the imprisonment of tens of thousands of Uighurs in so-called ‘re-education camps’. With the use of artificial intelligence and facial recognition to monitor and control Chinese citizens.” The EU is bound together by democracy, free speech, individual rights, liberal values. China has bound its people by authoritarianism, controlled speech and the supremacy of the Chinese Communist Party above all. Xi has now effectively told the EU that has fattened on its largess that it will export that model to the EU and smother liberal values there. The decade ahead will see the clash of these values influence the EU-China narrative.
Conflicts of economic interests. China let the EU believe in the power of economic globalisation. Forty years after it pretended to open up, the hype around a China that has embraced open markets has been proved to be just that — hype. EU’s hopes of exporting to China’s large market have been belied. While the EU nations went into China with eyes wide closed, the fact that they’ve been taken for a ride is now clear. The EU-China win-win has turned out to be simply that China wins twice — first by turning EU into a marketplace for its cheap goods, and second by getting EU companies to invest in China. In other words, China has EU’s money and eats it too. Just one statistic that has played out in countries across the world is a tell-all: EU sits on Euro 164 billion ($192 billion) trade deficit against China, or roughly the GDPs of Qatar and Kazakhstan. Over the past decade, this deficit has remained more than Euro 100 billion. Business as usual has now become business unusual, with EU nations displaying weak economic leaderships, often at the cost of jobs there.
Conflicts of strategic interests. China sees itself as a regional hegemon and a potential leader of a new global world order. From its perspective, the EU’s fidelity to the US-led world order has returned and instead of becoming a balance power between the US and itself, the EU is now veering away. The new world order that China wanted to create but not nourish, dominate but not engage, set the rules for but not follow them, needed EU as a soft partner, a strategic cushion. That partnership is now visibly receding. Germany, for instance, has made the Indo-Pacific region — the area shaped by the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean — an area of priority, both geographically and thematically. This, will become the basis for an EU strategy. France has made it clear that Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative cannot be of a new hegemony, it cannot be a one-way. China may choose to use Russia as its proxy to keep the EU on the edge, just as it uses North Korea against South Korea and Japan, and Pakistan against India. But even here, it has failed to turn Russia into an ally. China does not seek allies, only serfs like North Korea and Pakistan. Given the pressure from the US, that state of play seems to be ending in the EU.
Conflicts of civil engagements. Diplomacy is a delicate game that China’s wolfish behaviour ignores. If the threat to Czech Senate head Milos Vystrcil for visiting Taiwan by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is any indication, China is playing, and getting away with, its authoritarian card in EU. In other words, democracies of the EU will have to engage with China on a dictator’s terms, not as free nations. That the EU has put its petty interests over long-term values shows that devaluation of the leaderships there. When the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo in 2010, the Chinese government imposed sanctions on Norway. A decade later, a much stronger China remains as insecure: it imposed sanctions on Australia as retaliation against it seeking a Covid19 inquiry. Insecurity aside, the grammar of international relations is of cordial civility, not hard aggression, particularly on soft power. China’s politics of generosity has a geo-political component including a struggle for influence, said the EU High Representative and Vice President Josep Borrell in a statement: “Armed with facts, we need to defend Europe against its detractors.”
Even as China weaponises civility and global discourse, it is finally the people of democracies that will find answers — something China is completely oblivious to. This will play out across the world, from India and Australia to Japan and countries in the South China Sea. But above all, this state of play will be articulated and expressed most intensely in the EU. China will use the institutions of democracy to disarm the EU. Its tools will be to use the Oppositions to create alternative China-friendly politics, the independent judiciaries and the rules of law against their own interests, and the free press to build China-leaning narratives. The next few years will see a new level of information warfare in the EU, as one country after another rejects technological intrusions from Xi’s China. As a result and a possible ricochet, democracies in EU and in rest of the world, from the US to India, will need to rethink their dangerous liaisons with China in particular and authoritarianism in general.
Gautam Chikermane (Vice-Pt ORF)
15 october 2020