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.