The Hague-Beijing: a watershed moment

image: Chinese propaganda poster ca 1950 “Sending off the People’s Liberation Army to overthrow Taiwan! Carry out the revolutionary war to the end!” The army never really departed for Taiwan, although plans existed. Because of the presence of the American fleet and the outbreak of the Korean War, it never came beyond exercises and threats. © No copyright infringement intended. All rights belong to their respective copyright owners , refer

May 20 2021– It has not made the headlines, but it is worth to note that the permanent commission of Foreign Affairs of the Dutch Parliament has invited the Chinese ambassador in The Hague, Mr. Tan Jian, for a talk. Such requests are rare. This one follows the recent Chinese sanctioning of European politicians, organizations and think thanks, including Dutch MP Mr. Sjoerdsma of D66 and Dutch EU ambassador Delphine Pronk, which came in response to the EU sanctions against a limited number of local Chinese officials in Xinjiang held responsible for the human right violations in the Chinese province.

Chinese ambassador in The Hague

The closed meeting was originally scheduled for yesterday, May 19 2021, but has been deferred to a still unknown date due to allegedly “overlapping agendas” of some Dutch MPs. I have not seen any list of the planned agenda topics, but presumably the Dutch Parliament would like to express its concerns and objections to the recent Chinese sanctions and raise the Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang issues.

Other than offering Dutch MPs an opportunity to show their frustration and indignation over China’s behavior, it’s doubtful this meeting will produce any major results. The days in which Chinese diplomats preferred to keep a low profile are long gone: under Xi Jinping they have resorted to a much more offensive style known as ‘the wolf warrior’ diplomacy. China seeks to build and promote a multi-polar world order in which no other state can “interfere” with what it sees as “internal affairs”, the latter including human rights, Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the South China sea, the border with India, or potentially any problem or topic not to China’s liking. Beijing’s overseas diplomats are staunchly defending this governance approach.

Xi’s value system

In President Xi’s value system and view, democracy and human rights are not universal: universal to him should be the right not to bother each other over such issues as they are internal. ‘As long as you don’t bother me, I won’t bother you and we can do business.’ On top of that attitude, the Chinese government has been increasingly forcing its will on other states, rather than persuading nations to align with Chinese foreign policy goals. The use of economic and political leverage by a superpower to deter or punish other countries is in itself not surprizing: the frequency and intensity by which today’s China is resorting to it, is. Bullying has become the new normal. Even more important than a military strategy in its own backyard or around the world is China’s goal of increasing the cost for countries to counterbalance against Beijing by deepening economic interdependence.

The broader question in Europe is evolving into ‘does The Hague and Brussels still want to keep China inside the rule based international order and if so, how to convince Beijing it’s in its interest too?’ And how to continue to engage with China without constantly bowing to its demands and squandering one’s national security and principles? Up to quite recently the West (including Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Australia) didn’t say that much about democracy and values in the exchange with China. By not standing up enough for these values such as human equality, freedom, transparency, reciprocity, openess and solidarity, the West has permitted the gradual erosion of the multilateral, rule-based system it helped to build.

The US has had security commitments in the Asia-Pacific region that the EU does not have, which has allowed the EU, in particular Merkel, to view its relationship with Beijing as predominantly commercial, despite the fact that China under Xi moved away from market reforms, discriminated against foreign businesses, and harassed companies that were critical of its policies and rhetoric, made ridiculous sovereignty claims over the South China Sea, stepped up its threats against Taiwan, completely eliminated the last few remnants of Hong Kong’s autonomy and doubled down on its repression of the Uyghurs and other minorities.

The free market and geopolitics

The EU’s strictly business-focused relationship with China has exposed major shortcomings: the free market has been blind to the geopolitical threat of the over-concentration of supply of certain products critical to national security. It has also enabled Chinese state-owned companies to become a major partner in key European infrastructural projects with concerns over national security being conveniently ignored or downplayed. The belief that democratic freedoms would follow automatically as long as the PRC would integrate into the world economy first, open its markets to Western goods and thereupon deregulate internally, has turned out to be too optimistic and naive as well.

For years Western leaders and CEOs excelled in verbal gymnastics — or in simply saying nothing — when dealing with the very authoritarian Communist Party leadership in Beijing under Xi. Despite the PRC’s growing power over the past 2 decades, Holland and Europe still lack strong knowledge on issues related to Chinese domestic politics, foreign policy, society and economy. Meanwhile most European political parties and the mainstream media for a long time didn’t bother to be informed and/or inform their voters and readers about the political developments within China, the geopolitical consequences of its rise, the impact on the transatlantic alliance and the implications for the EU.

All this is changing because of the ‘geopolitical technology war’ between the US and China. American Congress is unified in labeling China as the key strategic- and systemic rival for the foreseeable future. The Corona pandemic has laid bare for the rest of the Western world the risks of overdependence on China in certain critical segments. The Xinjiang topic has shown Beijing’s continued lack of respect for human rights. In the meantime the new Biden government has not really altered Trump’s confrontational China policies, but has added a new dimension by trying to build an international front, which Trump failed to do. Consequentially Europe, its member states, governments and political parties are now in a kind of rush to conduct a wide, public China policy-and strategy debate during these extreme tense international circumstances because most of them -regretfully- never really took the time to have a comprehensive review at a much earlier stage. What we mostly heard coming out of the Hague and Brussels over the past 2 years is that China is a ‘partner, economic competitor and system rival’: if and how the EU would be able to manage these different roles in a consistent policy/strategy remained rather unclear.

Changing moods

The mood towards China has been shifting dramatically in many (democratic) Parliaments around the world over the past 1.5 years. Germany and the Netherlands, the major trading partners of China in the EU and led by political leaders who firmly believed in the business first approach, are a case in point. There are (finally!) heated debates about the future relationship with Beijing, in which the economic ties are no longer the only focus. The discussion has moved on from being purely about business, to talks on values and to the more fundamental question how to preserve the rules-based order that Europeans, Americans, Japanese, Canadians and Australians have built. That international system is not just based on business and trade, but also on values and the rule of law. Values are increasingly seen as an indispensable part of one’s national security strategy among a growing number of politicians in democratic nations. This explains the calls for more co-operation between like-minded countries.

Merkel and Rutte and their ministers of Foreign Affairs have already been confronted with this changing sentiment and new reality. and The departure of Merkel in September could pave the way for a badly needed, more balanced German China policy. By that time a new Dutch coalition government (under Rutte?) should have been installed as well: any new Dutch premier is likely to keep a very close eye on the developments in Berlin and will have to deal with a Parliament which has become very critical of China’s policies. Up to a few years ago, China was hardly making the frontpages: that has radically changed and most of the -almost daily- news isn’t very positive…

The EU

Sofar the EU has failed to speak with one voice towards China, the big question is whether it ever will. The economic power of the EU doesn’t get easily converted into political-strategic unity as long as unanimity is required in foreign policy decision-making. Perhaps (some in) the EU would still prefer to (forever) stay neutral in the US-China confrontation, a position which could become increasingly untenable if there is no de-escalation any time soon. Maybe Brussels sees a role for itself as a mediator between the US and China, for example with respect to the Taiwan issue. But balancing the (perceived) need to please China because of its economic power, while also staying loyal to the transatlantic alliance and true to values and democratic principles, is turning into a major geopolitical challenge -or should I say headache- for the Hague and the EU as a whole.

There is a direct and strong link between European prosperity and Asian security. A military confrontation between the PRC and the US in the Taiwan Strait would have a major economic impact and inflict a lot of damage on the EU. That’s why policymakers in Brussels and in The Hague should clearly and continuously express to China not only the US but also the EU has significant security interests in the Taiwan Strait.

The Taiwan issue

European leaders should of course still persevere in pressing for dialogue with Beijing on the chance it will -against all odds- come to see it as an exit strategy towards de-escalation, which would be to China’s own benefit. The EU should call for crisis management or de-escalation mechanisms between Washington and Beijing similar to those that existed between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But sadly the EU should also prepare for a scenario in which the PRC isn’t in for any dialogue or detente at all: how to at least dissuade Xi from using force against Taiwan, the high-tech powerhouse, in such a situation?

Though a Chinese invasion of Taiwan doesn’t look likely in the very short term, such a scenario can unfortunately no longer be ruled out under the (lifetime!) presidency of Xi. As mentioned before, Taiwan should be an integral part of the new Indo-Pacific strategies which have been recently formulated by several EU member states, including The Netherlands. Brussels should also be more proactive in expanding the contacts with Taiwan as a sign of support to its population and of the importance of the island to the European economy. The Hague and Brussels should fully and openly support Taiwan’s entrance into WTO and WHO. The EU should even consider to work towards an official declaration of support for Taiwan with other Western countries if Xi doesn’t back down. And Brussels should expand its commercial ties with like minded countries in the Indo-Pacific region as soon as possible. Lastly, the European Commission should come out with a clear and unequivocal statement that the sanctions of China against MEPs will not  be tolerated and block any ratification of the recently concluded investment agreement (CAI) with the PRC.

Dutch frigate

In what perhaps could be considered a first indication of a formally changing Dutch position to Beijing, The Hague confirmed about a month ago that the frigate Zr. Ms. Evertsen will visit Japan later this summer and also sail through the South China Sea claimed by China. The frigate will be part of a British fleet squadron, which will leave for the Far East in a few weeks. Earlier it was rumored the Dutch government hesitated to let the Evertsen sail all the way to Japan, preferring it would avoid a passage through the South China Sea out of fear of upsetting Beijing. Perhaps the Hague was swayed by the fact that France, Germany and Canada have also decided to send naval ships to these waters to underline the importance of free passage to Beijing. The Dutch Defense Ministry has stressed, however, that the frigate won’t travel through the Taiwan Strait…

The EU is Taiwan’s fifth largest trading partner, while Taiwan is the EU’s fifth largest partner in Asia. The island is the Netherlands’ fourth export destination in Asia and we are Taiwan’s second trading partner within the EU as well as the second largest foreign investor. The Dutch-Taiwanese trade relationship mostly concerns high-tech, equipment (ASML!) and electronics parts. The Hague has said it sees no need to further anchor this in a bilateral trade agreement between the EU and Taiwan, the subsequent Rutte cabinets have favoured to keep the ties low profile in line with the socalled ‘One China policy’: in this way it has f.e. kept out of the news that the Netherlands has shipped thousands of Corona vaccines to Taipei as a sign of our long standing friendship. The Hague should nevertheless seriously review with others in Europe if a more high profile EU business relationship with Taipei wouldn’t serve as a much better deterrence to Beijing.

Western solidarity

If Beijing doesn’t tone down its aggressive stance, it will be interesting to see how much solidarity there really will be in the West. The Covid-19 crisis showed this solidarity to be weak and vulnerable, which for sure hasn’t gone unnoticed in the CCP. How close will the alignment between the US and the EU turn out to be on f.e. economic policy coordination towards China or on common issues of strategic interest?

The real military deterrence towards China rests almost entirely on Washington’s shoulders. European goverments have been afraid of being swept up in “an American crusade against China”, but sofar have been unable to come up with their own convincing alternatives to deter Beijing from more aggression. The lack of a strong EU response after Xi’s ‘annexation’ of Hong Kong has served as another low point of prioritizing smooth economic relations (CAI) over defending values. Beijing must have interpreted it as a sign of European weakness, re-inforcing China’s conviction Europe is unwilling or unable to exploit its economic leverage over China.

Xi’s perceptions

These kind of perceptions could shape future Chinese decision making. Xi must be pondering over and over how much military pain the U.S. could really cause China in case of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. How committed is the US to retaliate? And how long would China be isolated economically from the world community in such a scenario? Based on his experience with Hong Kong, Xi could be under the impression Beijing can get away with a lot…

But politics, economics, technology and security are more and more merging, which ultimately could put Western governments and companies under heavy pressure to chose sides in the American-Chinese dispute. The EU’s business-focused China strategy will certainly no longer suffice, Brussels can no longer just be a bystander. Smart European companies have probably already figured out that China is both their best client and biggest threat. They surely see what is coming down the tracks at them, although they obviously do not wish to give up the big bucks they are still making over there. Yet they too are realizing that just laying low will probably no longer do the job. It will be demanding for European enterprises to steer clear of political controversies related to China in the months/years to come… 

Epoch-making Chinese diplomacy

Foreign Minister Wang Yi emphasized at a recent press conference that 2021 will be ‘a year of epoch-making significance’ for China’s diplomacy. It indeed could become a historical year, but not for the reasons Wang Yi envisioned. Instead of seeing an expansion of China’s influence and approach to global governance, 2021 could mark the watershed moment in which the PRC will begin to pay a heavy price for its ever growing use of intimidating and retaliatory modes of diplomacy and aggressive behavior.

The global China brand is in more danger than ever of becoming permanently tarnished and damaged, thwarting the PRC’s long-term goals of building strategic international partnerships and contributing to global stability. Ambassador Tan Jian better re-think twice how he would like to conduct the upcoming meeting with Dutch MPs. He’d better realize the MPs’ goal is not to undermine China’s economic success, but to remold the PRC into a responsible stakeholder in the rule-based international order. If, however, he opts for a role as a wolf warrior, I foresee Dutch Parliament will push any new cabinet to speed up the implementation of at least some of the countermeasures suggested in my earlier post, resulting in a severe souring of Dutch-Chinese relations.. .

propaganda poster 2013: a waving Xi Jinping in front of the uninhabited Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands (钓鱼岛/尖閣諸島), fiercely disputed between China and Japan, and China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning (辽宁舰). © No copyright infringement intended. All rights belong to their respective copyright owners , refer