Photo: Stef Blok, Minister of Foreign Affairs, © copyright Rijksoverheid, ministerie van BuZa
Last week the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, made a surprise visit to The Hague as part of his flying tour of several European cities, including Rome, Paris and Berlin. The Dutch parliament was only informed at the very last minute about the meeting, which took place at a secret location.
Who initiated the meeting? Why the secrecy? It is not clear. What exactly has been discussed? Not entirely clear either. It is telling, however, that Prime Minister Rutte and Minister of Foreign Affairs Blok agreed to or even proposed this secrecy, denying the Dutch media the opportunity to have a press conference after the meeting. It shows how sensitive the relationship with China has become and how scared Rutte and Blok are to expose Beijing and themselves in public to critical questions (or demonstrations?). In mijngroeve.nl I have mentioned before how the Rutte cabinet regularly appears to be unwilling to have a critical, public debate about the Dutch relationship with China.
Purpose of the secret meeting
What was the purpose of the meeting?
We should assume assume it served several goals.
With the China dream falling apart, ministers from both countries are desperately trying to limit the damage, refer https://www.mijngroeve.nl/history/the-unravelling-of-the-china-dream/ . It is plausible that Wang Yi has tried to capitalize on the Dutch government’s wish to keep the planned EU-China investment agreement alive. After all, the Netherlands is the 2nd largest trading partner of China in Europe! The Chinese minister must have hoped The Hague could be used to mitigate the damage that Xi Jinping’s China First policy has caused in European political circles.
The introduction of the new Security Law in Hong Kong has proved to be the last straw for many European parliamentarians. The anti-China mood is growing steadily. Yet China too is probably still keen to save the investment agreement, especially now that its relationship with America is in tatters. Wang Yi will most likely have conveyed such a message, in the hope that Blok would pass it on to his European colleagues. In the growing confrontation with the US, Beijing still sees Europe as a strategic partner that should be kept out of the US anti-China camp.
Wang Yi will have been questioned by Blok on the Hong Kong issue. The Dutch minister will have expressed concerns about the ongoing Chinese human rights violations in Xinjiang and Tibet as well. His Chinese colleague will have reiterated the importance of multilateralism, free trade and international cooperation to combat Corona and the climate crisis. And that Hong Kong and Taiwan should be seen as internal Chinese issues, falling under Chinese sovereignty. Wang Yi will also have emphasized to Blok that Huawei deserves a fair chance in the Dutch 5G network and that the Netherlands should not be influenced by the US in its decision regarding the export licenses for ASML’s most advanced (EUV) equipment.. In short, Wang will have stressed China continues to offer the Netherlands plenty of great opportunities for cooperation in areas such as technology, agriculture, horticulture and shipbuilding.
What -if any- Dutch and European actions will follow in the aftermath of this lightning visit? Will priority at European level be given to securing the investment agreement or resisting Xi Jinping’s aggressive (foreign) policy by, for example, declaring sanctions against certain individuals / organizations / companies in Hong Kong or China or by imposing restrictions on the export of sensitive technology and know-how to China, as already done by the US? Or will the EU somehow be able to unite carrot and stick in a new European China strategy, which will aim for a neutral position in the conflict between the two superpowers?
Unease in Dutch Parliament
However, the Rutte cabinet and European leaders such as Merkel and Macron are facing a political mood in their respective parliaments that is incomparable to a few years ago. Some MPs even question the wisdom of the investment agreement in the current tense international climate. In the past Beijing and Rutte’s circumspect “business-first” China policy were always given the benefit of the doubt, yet today almost all Dutch MPs are looking very critically at the developments in the PRC and the policy formulated and followed by the Dutch cabinet. . . China has been put under a magnifying glass in Dutch parliament, as last year this site predicted was going to happen. The current mood reflects more than just parliamentary noise for opportunistic political self-gain and symbolizes a growing Dutch unease about China and the official Dutch government’s response.
Wang Yi’s surprise visit has led to a barrage of questions for Blok. To give a few examples: MPs questioned if The Hague did align the Dutch position at the European level before Wang Yi’s visit. Another question to the minister: “Do you share the opinion that this state of affairs (= keeping the visit secret/E.R.) stands in the way of the right of MPs, Dutch journalists, organizations and the public to be properly informed and prepared for such a meeting and of entering into a debate on the relations between the Netherlands and China?” Or: “Did you inform Mr. Wang Yi that the Dutch government doesn’t tolerate Chinese government officials are threatening, intimidating and blackmailing Uyghurs in the Netherlands? What agreements have been made about this?”
Or: “Have you spoken to the Chinese Minister about the human rights violations in Tibet? Have you asked the Chinese Minister to release the Panchen Lama, one of Tibet’s most important Buddhist leaders? Have you informed the Chinese Minister that as long as the above gross human rights violations are taking place in Tibet, there can be no question of further cooperation between the Netherlands and China? ” And last but not least: “Have you made it clear to Mr. Wang Yi that the Netherlands would like to see Taiwan granted observer status at the World Health Organization (WHO)?”
University of Amsterdam (UVA)/Free University (VU): smart research?
The cabinet continues to be challenged about the controversial telecom giant Huawei as well. A day before Wang Yi’s visit, it was reported that the two universities of Amsterdam have entered into a partnership with the Chinese enterprise. Huawei will fund a 3.5 million euro research project to develop a new search engine based on artificial intelligence. This socalled Dreamslab, to be set up by UVA / VU, will conduct research over a period of four years into a search engine that can intelligently and simultaneously perform search tasks in multiple languages, resulting in greater efficiency and effectiveness. This search engine will also be self-learning, i.e. be able to derive and generate itself questions from the context of the user’s previous searches, providing further benefits and convenience to the user.
All may sound relatively innocent, but Dutch MPs don’t feel reassured. Let me list again a number of their questions to which the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and the Minister of the Interior, Justice and Security as well as the State Secretary of Economic Affairs still owe answers: “Can you explain why Huawei is partly banned from the critical 5G infrastructure in the Netherlands per advise of our intelligence services, but not from collaboration with universities such UVA and the VU?” Or “Will the Dutch intelligence services continue to monitor whether there is no undesirable exchange of knowledge during the cooperation process, which would harm the security interests or the strategic interests of the Netherlands or our NATO partners? If not, why not? Are you willing to introduce such permanent monitoring mechanisms?”
From the liberal VVD, the biggest party within the coalition government: “How does the cooperation of the Amsterdam universities with Huawei relate to the government’s policy memorandum on the Netherlands-China? Is it true that Dutch universities were explicitly warned about the ‘geopolitical power play’ of China when it concerns foreign knowledge and technology? Why are you approving this cooperation in that light? And “Is it true that you, the State Secretary for Economic Affairs, explicitly pointed out to UvA in a separate meeting that the deal could pose major risks? What are those ‘major risks’? Do you still hold this view? If so, why do you approve this cooperation? If not, why not?”
The motion of MPs Van der Molen en Wiersma
And: “What about the implementation of the motion by members Van der Molen and Wiersma, which requested the government to investigate whether China should be added to the list of countries falling under the control of the Taskforce Supervision Students and Researchers of Risk Countries? When can Parliament expect the decision? If China is added to the list of risk countries, what does that mean for the collaboration of the Amsterdam universities with Huawei?” This motion was passed in November 2019 with general MP consent and is still awaiting the government’s conclusion…
The two universities don’t feel they have done anything wrong. Says responsible professor Frank van Harmelen in the Volkskrant of August 25:
“Of course 3.5 million is a lot of money, but that is not the only thing we are looking at. Equally interesting is the substantive collaboration. Huawei does possess a lot of data, which is essential for research into A.I. .… Of course we are not stupid and we are very aware of the sentiments in society … We have made our decision after careful deliberation and have had discussions with the Ministries of Economic Affairs and Education, Culture and Science, as well as the intelligence services. Fortunately we don’t need their permission, but they have warned us about the risks associated with such a collaboration… First of all, we have full academic freedom. We can publish everything, even if it is negative. Furthermore, all researchers in the new lab will be employed by the universities, not by Huawei. And finally, all data are to be stored on the servers of the UvA and VU. No Huawei employee will have access to those data.”
Rathenau Institute report
The problem is that is has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between knowledge development for civilian and for military purposes. New civilian knowledge about artificial intelligence and robotics can often also be employed for military applications. It is not easy for university researchers to determine in advance which specific developments in knowledge and technology have potential military significance or entail (geopolitical) security risks and concerns.
In 2019, the Rathenau Institute published a report in which the implications of the digitization of our society and economy and the blurring between civil and military knowledge development are described in detail. In that report, the Dutch government was also advised: “… the security interests extend beyond the individual researcher or knowledge institutions – these are national interests. It is not desirable that individual researchers independently draw their own conclusions about these interests or knowledge institutions have their own, different policies. This requires national policy, of course with the realization that all this will take place within frameworks that must be agreed upon internationally and within Europe.”
The Rutte cabinet still places the responsibility with the knowledge institutions, both for the granting / acceptance of research projects that may affect national security and for the screening of Chinese students / researchers who enroll at universities. To date the national government refuses to take control. The Rathenau report states: “In concrete terms, politically established frameworks should provide answers to questions such as: is it justified to work with a company like Huawei? How should students and staff from countries such as China and Iran be screened? “
Advice to the government
The report also advised the government to develop procedures that help to deal responsibly with research activities that may have military significance. This could mean, for example, that defense and security aspects become a standard part of decision-making and monitoring around research processes – from evaluation of a proposal to evaluation of process and result.
The government should create clear frameworks and conditions under which certain research may or may not take place. The institutionalization of safeguards is also important, for example maintaining government supervision of compliance with those conditions during the research process, without infringing upon academic freedom with regard to the content of the research itself. Frameworks and procedures of this kind should also be drafted and agreed upon at the European level so that all knowledge centers on the continent pursue a uniform policy.
Apparently, the Rutte cabinet does not want to initiate this yet, but with the changing climate in parliament, it seems only a matter of time before the government will be forced to play a more proactive role in monitoring the relations of Dutch universities with China. In fact, similar parliamentary debates are happening in all European countries with leading academic institutes. In the meantime, the UvA / VU ‘d better offer full disclosure about the agreements made with Huawei…
Why did Huawei choose these two universities and which researchers will be hired? Although it has been established that no Huawei employees can be engaged, are researchers from China also excluded from participation? And what will Huawei do with the results of the research? Perhaps these universities should question themselves again about the desirability of cooperation in the field of A.I. with a company that is now being treated with suspicion by a large majority of Dutch parliament.
Huawei will no doubt keep on arousing emotions in Dutch parliament. After the recent U-turn of the UK, which decided to completely ban Huawei from its 5G communication network, Minister Grapperhaus was asked whether this has led to new insights by the Dutch cabinet. The government’s position has been to not exclude any country or Chinese company in advance of our network and to allow the deployment of Huawei equipment in the so-called network periphery. In his first answer last week, the minister again revealed little:
“I am closely following the developments in policy regarding the 5G network in the United Kingdom, including their motivations to completely exclude Huawei from the British 5G network. I would like to emphasize that the Netherlands is making an independent decision regarding the security and integrity of the telecom networks. One of the measures taken by our cabinet in response to the risk analysis is to set up a structural process in which new information about threat and technology is assessed by the government and the telecom sector. If required, additional measures will be taken” see also https://www.mijngroeve.nl/history/holland-huawei-and-5g-wat-next/
The UK has fully excluded Huawei, officially after having concluded that the Chinese company will struggle to provide reliable equipment in the future because it has meanwhile been cut off from vital Western semiconductor supplies due to the recent US export restrictions, a high risk and vulnerability mijngroeve.nl highlighted at an early stage. . Naturally, the American pressure on Boris Johnson also has played a major role in the British decision-making, see also:
But in the meantime the French too have diplomatically shown Huawei the door in their 5G rollout. Whether the Rutte cabinet will (be able to) maintain its current position vis-à-vis Huawei is in serious doubt. Until 2018, the Prime Minister himself mainly expressed very positive views of the cooperation with Huawei. Since then we haven’t heard much from him about the Chinese company, has he changed his view? Obviously he is keeping a close eye on Merkel, who still has to announce Germany’s final decision regarding Huawei’s role in its 5G network.
The coming weeks
On September 3 there was a closed meeting of a select group of Dutch MPs who were informed – subject to a promise of confidentiality – about the progress in the 5G rollout and the additional security measures taken / to be taken. This confidentiality has been ordered on the basis of Dutch national security. Let’s hope that all this secrecy surrounding the Rutte cabinet’s China approach does not just stem from a need to conceal a lack of direction as well as of a clearly defined/elaborated China policy, strategy and geopolitical vision.
On September 14, the EU will hold a virtual summit with China, which Xi Jinping is said to join. The outcome of the meeting should provide more clarity about the status and direction of EU-Chinese relations and the investment agreement. We will also learn if the EU will translate any of its expressed concerns regarding Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang etc etc into any concrete action. All eyes will be on Merkel (see also https://www.mijngroeve.nl/history/merkel-china-the-moment-of-truth/ ).
I suspect we won’t hear much from our Prime Minister about the Dutch relationship with China until that date…
refer: Diercks, G., J. Deuten en P. Diederen (2019). “Kennis in het vizier – De gevolgen van de digitale wapenwedloop voor de publieke kennisinfrastructuur” Den Haag: Rathenau Instituut, 2019