From Paris to Riga, there are calls for a new European approach towards China. All over Europe, there is pressure for national governments and the European Union to adopt a more robust and assertive China policy. The COVID-19 pandemic and concerns over supply chain security and economic dependency on China have accelerated this trend, as tensions between Brussels and Beijing have flared over China’s intensive promotion of its medical supplies, its pressure over an EEAS disinformation report or the censured op-ed by European ambassadors in Beijing. Combined with the growing assertiveness and authoritarianism in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the pressure for a more hard-line European approach has reached a boiling point, as the old ways are branded as “naïve”. As High Representative Josep Borrell put it bluntly: “We need a more robust strategy for China”.
All these calls focus on getting tough on China, demanding and pursuing reciprocity, designing a more robust and “realistic” strategy, yet there is very little talk, either at the official or public levels, about what should be the end goal of Europe’s China strategy. This flawed approach gets the entire process backwards. You first decide what you want and only then do you focus on how to get it. Europe can’t really have a proper China strategy if it doesn’t have a goal. Getting tough, being realistic, demanding reciprocity or defending against short-term threats aren’t goals. Unless Europe starts debating what it wants from China on the long term, it cannot design a proper China strategy.
There are numerous possible goals for Europe’s strategy towards China. Europe’s goal could be to maximize economic opportunities and economic growth. It can decide to stand up for human rights and democratic values, with the goal of always respecting these principles, regardless of costs or consequences. It can design its China policy with the goal of having the maximum positive impact possible for people in China whose rights need to be protected, from dissidents to ethnic minorities. It can aim to democratize China. Or it can focus on changing and peacefully integrating China into the liberal world order as the end goal of its strategy. The implications of each of these goals are different, even if they sometimes might sound similar.
For example, if the main purpose in relations with the PRC is to stand up for human rights and democratic values, the EU can take every opportunity to criticize human rights abuses, introduce sanctions and take other coercive measures. Yet, unless Europe is willing to threaten the Chinese leadership with the possibility of an economic decoupling (which is extremely unlikely to ever happen), it’s doubtful that expressions of concern, criticism, boycotts, sanctions and other forms of “imposing costs” will really help many suffering from abuses in the PRC.
Did Australia abandon its call for an international inquiry into the origins of the pandemic under economic and diplomatic pressure from China? No. Did Canada free Meng Wanzhou under economic and diplomatic pressure from China? No. Did Sweden tone down its concerns about Gui Minhai under economic and diplomatic pressure from China? No. The examples could go on. Then why should anybody assume that the PRC will fundamentally change its internal policies under criticism and modest economic or diplomatic pressure from the EU (or the West in general)? The Chinese leadership might be flexible regarding some of its actions if confronted with real economic or reputation costs, but it will not buckle under pressure when it comes to what it defines as core interests and, unfortunately, some of the human rights abuses that Westerners are concerned about fall under what the current leadership sees as the core interest of defending the PRC’s political system or territorial integrity (even though, in reality, these issues do not threaten either regime stability or territorial integrity).
If the goal of a China strategy is to make Europeans feel good about themselves for doing the right thing, that is relatively easy to achieve (as long as politicians are ready to face possible diplomatic or economic consequences), but it will do little to improve the state of human rights and freedom in China. On the other hand, if the goal is precisely to do whatever is necessary to improve this situation, then public criticism and getting tough and loud on China, while imposing reciprocal economic restrictions driven by market concerns, could in fact be counterproductive. More results might come from direct political engagement with the Chinese leadership, combined with both providing positive incentives and privately bringing up the possibility of considerable negative consequences for certain actions. At the same time, the EU should deepen engagement with China as a country, building stronger links to the Chinese people, business elites, intellectual elites and even local political elites, to use these connections to lobby for changes in central policies that violate fundamental human rights.
If the ultimate goal is changing the mindset of the Chinese leadership on the long term and peacefully integrating China into the liberal world order, then this might only be possible through a coordinated, if not unified, strategy with the United States. But there are many things that Europe could still do to achieve this goal and it’s far from clear that getting tough on China could facilitate it. On the contrary, it is more likely to make this goal even more difficult to achieve, as if it wasn’t already hard enough. This is why it’s important to first decide on a goal and only then design a strategy and implement policies. Otherwise, attractive short-term policies might be detrimental on the long term.
Without a coherent, goal-driven, long-term strategy, Europe also risks becoming a victim of the US-China struggle for global supremacy, as both sides will pressure Europe to align with their goals, as in the case of Huawei. Yet if Europe would have such a strategy, while the US-China conflict would remain problematic, one can even imagine that a strategically-minded Europe could be in the driver’s seat in formulating a common trans-Atlantic strategy, persuading US officials that its vision is the best approach. Instead of letting Washington influence it, Europe could try to influence the US. But while the US sees itself and acts as a superpower, with long-term goals (even if it takes time to identify them and design a coherent strategy to reach them), neither the EU, nor European governments do so.
Thus, unfortunately, such options for ambitious goals probably aren’t on the table. The current debate seems to be between a strategy that prioritizes economic benefits and an approach of getting tough, reciprocal and “realistic” with the PRC, possibly with the goal of remaining faithful to democratic values, but without a real concern for improving the realities on the ground in China. Yet the most likely result isn’t the creation of a coherent strategy with any end goal, but a gradual change towards toughness and reciprocity in the current haphazard approach, without any long-term vision. Europe won’t really stand up for its values, won’t work to defend human rights in China, won’t maximize economic benefits and won’t change or integrate China into the liberal world order. Nor will it join the US and declare Cold War against the PRC and focus on regime change. It will simply float adrift, rudderless and without a destination, guided by whichever way the wind blows. And, in the meantime, the lack of unity, instead of a lack of a long-term goal and a strategy to achieve it, will be blamed for this.
What European stakeholders, governments and leaders need to do is to start discussing and debating what should be Europe’s long-term goal (or goals) in regards to China. Only once such a goal has been identified, can they proceed to design a strategy in order to achieve this goal and develop the tools necessary for this strategy to succeed. This is the right way to design a proper strategy. And it should be clear that China is such an important subject that it deserves a coherent, goal-driven, long-term strategy, instead of a bunch of improvised, reactive, haphazard and short-sighted policies. This is the only way Europe can get China right, whatever goal it will eventually decide on.
This article is part of RISAP’s series It’s time for a coherent, goal-driven, long-term European China strategy. Go deeper and read the other articles of the series: