12th Apr 2021


EU's peddler politics

The European Council at last decided to sanction China for human rights violations in the autonomous region of Xinjiang.

They are insufficient.

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  • Conflict is unavoidable, because it is inevitable that a rich authoritarian country with a population of 1.4 billion people will assertively advance its will

They only target the executers of Chinese policy: four low-ranking local officials, one even retired, and the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps.

The masterminds of the mass-imprisonment of Uighurs in Beijing, the large international companies that are indirectly benefitting from the forced labour stay out of sight.

The sanctions are another example of European peddler politics: offering a little tasting of this and a little of that, without impact.

It is not a rupture with the opportunistic appeasement of the past; it is a continuation of it.

Many officials will insist that these are surgical sanctions, targeting the core of the problem. The core of the problem, however, is in Beijing, not in Kashgar.

It is located at the top of the Communist Party of China, not at its local fundaments. To these are cosmetic sanctions, not surgical sanctions.

But, then, one could assert, these limited sanctions avoid a risky collision. After all, we still need China to deal with climate change.

The truth is that collision is unavoidable, at least if the European leadership does what it paid for: to protect the prosperity and security of its citizens, to uphold the core constitutional values, and to make sure that also our children will continue to have the freedom and means to shape their society.

Conflict is unavoidable, because of the sheer power potential of China, because its growth is less and less checked by regional counterweights, because the fact that its core ambitions are just incompatible with the promise of a peaceful rise, and because it is inevitable that a rich authoritarian country with a population of 1.4 billion people will assertively advance its will.

Power breeds arrogance and there is no reason to expect this to change.

Hawk, or lame duck?

I'd rather see Europe a bit more of a hawk, that continuing to be a lame duck.

China is another empire in the making. If it already treats some of its own citizens so brutally, why should we expect this to be different towards foreigners if it grows more powerful?

Indeed, we do not have certainty that it will continue to grow so impressively. After all, it has many internal challenges. We do not know whether the party will still be in charge by, say, 2049.

Yet, as the future remains uncertain, precautions must be taken.

That collision has become unavoidable is as much the consequence of our own decade-long opportunism as of China's energy.

For decades, it has been clear what China was up to: to slowly expand the motherland, to incorporate Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other places.

We knew that the party was bent on combating Western liberalism. After Tiananmen that became manifestly clear. We knew that it was using our companies to get their technology and to make them redundant in the long run. All that was not even a secret.

But while we could have pursued soft balancing against such long-term threat in the previous decades, to gently diversify investments towards other markets, like ASEAN, and to subtly put some breaks on the technology transfer, we chose business as usual.

Instead of gradually rebalancing trade, we allowed ever-larger trade deficits that were used as a strategic instrument by the party to undermine our own influence.

Our own creation

In the last 30 years, we missed an opportunity for softly balancing, for cautiously rebalancing the partnership. China's emergence as a strong competitor and a rival is, in a way, our own creature.

As a result, balancing today becomes much more difficult; soft balancing almost impossible. Our companies are dependent on China, our consumers so addicted to Chinese imports, the trade imbalance so large, that any correction will be difficult and painful – for both China and Europe.

It would be an illusion now to expect that we will balance China without some sacrifice. Still, it needs to be done and it needs to be done fast.

The peddler politics of limited measures will not do. There need to be solid brakes on technology transfer, measures to get European investors out of China, to reduce the trade deficit, so that the earnings of companies in China can no longer be sterilised for strategic purposes.

Policies on subsidies, dumping, investment screening: all fine, but the only benchmark of their success is the actual rebalancing of the partnership.

I am not naive. This will not happen.

The indignation that now follows the Chinese counter-sanctions against European politicians, experts, and officials will superficially continue for a while.

Europe will make some bolder statements, come up with a somewhat more ambitious Indo-Pacific strategy, coordinate a bit more with the United States. But at the fundaments nothing much will change. There is just no readiness for sacrifice.

So, unless Chinese growth stalls, we will move from a lost momentum for soft balancing, to a lost momentum of hard economic balancing, to moment in which the advancing of China's authoritarianism can only be stopped by hard political and even military balancing.

The sacrifices will only become larger, but that will be the problem largely of our children. For now, we can still perfectly pretend.

Author bio

Jonathan Holslag teaches international politics at the Free University of Brussels.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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