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March 25 2021_The EU and China formed no topic for discussion in the recent Dutch election campaigns and political debates. Less than a week after the election results, the Dutch political parties – and Prime Minister Rutte in particular – have already been overtaken by reality.
Loyal readers of mijngroeve.nl will not be completely surprised by the fact that the EU has issued a (very limited!) number of sanctions against Chinese officials who are held responsible for the abuses in Xinjiang. Nor will the fierce response of Xi Jinping’s China come as a surprize. The Chinese government has announced sanctions against ten European politicians, including Dutch MP Sjoerdsma of D66, and even scientists (!). Sjoerdsma has dared to speak out against Dutch participation in the Winter Olympics in 2022 if China does not adjust its human rights policy. And together with ChristenUnie colleague Voordewind, he was the initiator of a motion that was passed in the Lower House (the VVD of Rutte voted against) that labeled the human rights violations of the Uighurs in China as genocide. As so often in recent years, Xi’s disciples have resorted to intimidation in response: Chinese ambassadors have ushered all sorts of threats to their European counterparts…
It’s questionable whether it was a smart Chinese move to pick Sjoerdsma as a target. Sofar D66, under the leadership of Minister for Foreign Trade of the care-taking Rutte III cabinet, Mrs. Kaag, still seemed in favor of ratification of the controversial investment agreement with China. https://www.mijngroeve.nl/history/in-a-bind-ratify-eu-china-investment-agreement/ Following the sanctions against her fellow party member, Kaag, one of the big winners of the elections, will be far less enthusiastic about ratification.
Perhaps Xi has already concluded that the agreement can be sacrificed without any problems because in his view the EU cannot economically do without China anyway. The despot could be convinced that he has Europe in his pocket irrespective of any CAI due to German overdependency on the Chinese market (f.e. the car industry), the French preference to take a neutral position in the escalating US-PRC geopolitical technology war, and Rutte’s wish to keep trade policy separate from human rights. Mijngroeve.nl has previously described how Xi’s self-confidence and aggression have further been fueled by his conviction that the US has fallen into irreversible decline.
International legal order
The rise of China has led to a rearrangement of the international balance of power, which is forcing the Netherlands to take a clearer stance than before. The successive Rutte cabinets mostly preferred to bury their head in the sand. Yet our constitution stipulates that our country is committed to the promotion of the international legal order. The latter is now a dire necessity to simply survive in an increasingly grim world. A conflict is unfolding between democracies and dictatorships that threatens to become the most important fight of this century. A battle between states that still have faith in freedom, democracy and the rule of law and countries that only believe in power, with China and Russia as the main exponents. This battle is not just about important issues such as human rights, but about what to share and what to protect in the relationship / exchange with these kinds of dictatorships, as technology, economics / trade and national security have become closely intertwined.
The promotion and defense of universal values such as freedom, democracy, multilateralism and human rights should not be treated as empty slogans, but viewed as a precondition for the survival of the current international legal order. If everything is just allowed to run its course, the rules of the game will gradually be completely rewritten by these dictatorships. Western countries and democratic governments should (pro-) actively participate in international bodies and work closely together to prevent global standards regarding technology, digitization, cyberspace, data management and privacy from being defined by undemocratic countries.
That is also why Dutch and European politicians must set clear frameworks under which European companies can / may trade with and invest in China, which is rapidly becoming the largest economy in the world. This can no longer be just left to the companies or the free market itself. The same applies to academic collaborations with the PRC: the assessment of the associated risks, the benefits, advantages and/or disadvantages can no longer be solely left to the knowledge institutions.
Xi: Mao’s heir
Chinese President Xi is a self-proclaimed fan of Mao Zedong, the paranoid leader who brought the PRC to the brink of collapse and whose views were more or less banned by Deng Xiaoping after 1978. Deng saw clear possibilities for China’s development (in the form of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”) within the existing international order, in peaceful coexistence with the West. As a result, his foreign policy became fairly transparent and predictable. But Xi has revived Mao’s ideas since his rise to power in 2013: “Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong have led the Chinese people out of the darkness and established a new China,” Xi has said. To add on the relationship with the West: “Marx and Engels’ analysis of the fundamental contradictions in capitalist society is not outdated, nor is the historical-materialist view that capitalism will die out and socialism will win.” (refer https://www.mijngroeve.nl/music/smasher-of-the-week-23_wang-kun-the-red-girl-with-the-white-hair/
As a true Maoist, Xi is now preparing his people for a new long ‘revolutionary struggle’ with the year 2049 as a historical turning point: the arrival of the socialist paradise and a rejuvenated China, which will guide and lead the new world, precisely 100 years after the foundation of the People’s Republic. To dismiss Xi’s ideas as purely, empty ideological propaganda for a domestic audience does miss the point. While the Chinese people are no doubt more interested in making money than re-studying Mao’s philosophy, the fact remains that Xi’s beliefs and foreign and domestic policies are firmly rooted in a number of Maoist principles.
Mao’s military strategy in the pre-WWII civil war was to maintain popular support and draw the enemy deep into the countryside where the population would make him bleed, through a mix of mobile- and guerrilla warfare, constantly surprising and attacking the opponent. According to Mao, the CCP would always be the winner in such a protracted war, by eventually encircling and cutting off the enemy from all sides. In 1939 Mao pointed out that the ‘3 magical weapons’, i.e. the Party, the armed struggle and the so-called United Front Work (‘tongyi zhanxian gongzuo’), would make the CCP triumph over the enemy in the Chinese revolution. The great Helmsman taught the strategic importance of bringing together a coalition of like-minded or mutually interested parties, the United Front, to conquer a more powerful adversary, even if these allies were otherwise not perfectly aligned in ideology.
After the foundation of the PRC in 1949, Mao then sought to export his revolution abroad by supporting communist movements in Asia and Africa, setting up illegal radio stations and destabilizing incumbent regimes, and playing on the sentiments of the overseas Chinese community, especially in Southeast Asia.
Mao’s domestic consolidation of power was accompanied by megalomaniacal economic projects, an unprecedented personality cult and the absolute subordination of the military to his authority. Divide and rule became his motto. It gave his domestic and foreign policies a high degree of unpredictability. Party members talked up to him, fearing criticism would cost their lives. Opponents were silenced on a large scale without any mercy. At the same time, Mao’s idealized a completely autarkic China, characterized by minimal dependence on foreign countries.
If we look at the present time, we find all kinds of Maoist traits in Xi’s behavior and policies. Xi sees himself in an ideological battle with the West and is convinced that through a patient and long-term approach, China will be able to revise the rules of the international legal order. The ultimate goal is not the strengthening of the current order, but weakening and eroding it to enable the creation of a new system according to Xi’s recipe, where the law of the strongest will prevail and contradiction will not be tolerated.
His megalomaniac Belt and Road initiative is a kind of encircling strategy, gradually luring countries, governments and populations into positions of dependency: the underlying hope is that any opposition to China’s approach will gradually die out completely and the autocratic road will be seen as the new shining path instead of the Western, democratic approach.
The United Front
China’s overseas investments are not arbitrary, but deliberate: they are part of a larger plan to create strategic dependencies. Xi simultaneously takes advantage of the openness of Western societies to spread his message of the resurrection of a greater China (China Inc) to the overseas Chinese community, expats and students, appealing to their love for the motherland and feelings of loyalty. Those who dare to express doubts about communist China are named and shamed relentlessly and depicted as traitors.
Foreign academics and CEOs are taken in by attractive positions or excessive salaries, as long as they are willing to spread positive stories about Xi’s China in return. The United Front is institutionalized under Xi through overseas CCP agencies, the Confucius institutions, Chinese TV channels and the social media, academic exchanges, JVs etc etc. Through the United Front, Xi hopes to influence and dominate public opinion abroad.
In Xi’s eyes, political hegemony can be achieved through this ‘war of words’. Quite a few foreigners have shown themselves to be willing to propagate without any restraint or criticism the image and narrative cherished by Beijing that the Chinese market is the only engine of the world economy or that ‘the era of China’ is unavoidable due to the inevitable decline of the West and the unstoppable Chinese technological superiority. Meanwhile, Chinese state-sponsored hackers are carrying out numerous attacks on networks of Western governments and companies and using social media to spread disinformation whenever it benefits Beijing, with the aim of destabilizing the position of the foreign opponent.
European countries and governments are ruthlessly pitted against each other by Xi and his overseas diplomatic comrades. The West was taken by surprise by Xi’s annexation of Hong Kong amid the Corona crisis. Western dependence on Chinese medical supplies was exploited by him to quickly push through the new Hong Kong security law. The Western countries and especially the EU were merely bystanders.
Xi is constantly testing the military resilience of Taiwan / US in the South China Sea, confident that this war of attrition will also be won by the PRC in the end. The simultaneous revival of the border conflict with India is no coincidence either: it’s meant to confuse the West about China’s real military focus.
Xi has created an unprecedented cult of personality, appointed himself President for life, set up an unparalleled domestic terror machine using modern technology, and made Chinese self-sufficiency his top priority. Domestic stability is an absolute must in order to realize his foreign ambitions. In a ceaseless flow of propaganda, the Chinese people are made enthusiastic for the resurgence of the Greater China, with all kinds of historical rights and sovereignty claims being justified in the process. All of this has been topped with an extremely nationalistic sauce that Mao would have been more than proud of.
Some will argue China is just doing what any other superpower would do, that is, spreading its overseas influence through (legal) means and people at its disposal. The difference is that we are dealing here with a modern kind of Maoist, who does not want to strengthen the existing legal order, but to re-mold it according to his own preference. For him it is a long-term battle in which the PRC = CCP = Xi will ultimately be victorious. Everything is allowed, including hacking, IP theft, espionage etc to win the fight.
What does that mean for our future? We do not have to exclude China, but we must at all times realize who and what kind of leader we are dealing with. Someone who pretends to be a globalist, who pretends to be willing to cooperate in all kinds of areas, but whose ultimate goal is different from ours. Can deals still be made with such a country, such a leader? It’s possible as long as we do not lose sight of the fact that Xi is the mole, who co-operates or sabotages depending on what suits him the best tactically or strategically. But we should never let the mole win.
Major dependencies on the PRC must therefore be quickly reduced or prevented, which means that the Netherlands and Europe will pay a price for this economically. It is the duty of politicians to make this clear to their voters, something that once again has not been done in the past election campaign. The economic damage can be mitigated by, for example, building more extensive trade relations with other countries in the Asia-Pacific region, such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, Indonesia and India.
It is even more important to define concrete, clear red lines in the exchange with Xi’s China, based on the belief and knowledge that in many ways China needs the West more than the other way around. Complete decoupling is in no one’s interest, but least of all in China’s: Beijing desperately needs Western know-how and continued access to the financial markets.
It is also incredibly important that Western countries work closely together in their policy towards China. The first steps have meanwhile been taken by the Biden government, but the cooperation is still very fragile. The EU, including Merkel and Rutte, does not seem to share the American view that China is the West’s greatest geopolitical and strategic challenge. But Europe’s one-sided trade policy-oriented approach, assuming that an investment agreement will automatically lead to better behavior of the PRC, is completely outdated.
What is needed in Dutch and European policy is a more balanced, smarter mix of competition, containment and resilience in the relationship with China, in which all allies coordinate their approach as much as possible. A counter front against Xi’s united front. In addition Europe should encourage and stimulate innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship in the commercial competition with the US and PRC.
Cooperation with China can be sought in areas where there are still shared interests (such as climate / environment, arms control and trade in non-sensitive goods), although here too the EU will have to return to a sense of reality. For example, there often is a big gap between the climate ambitions expressed by Beijing in front of a Western audience and the reality on the Chinese ground. The CCP’s monopoly of power in China is based on delivering consistently strong economic growth: if climate measures threathen to hinder that growth, the CCP under Xi will presumably always opt for growth for fear of losing its legitimacy.
Collaboration with China in other areas, especially in high-tech / semiconductors, AI and the digital domain, requires enormous vigilance as well as caution and restraint from the West. Europe will have to rethink carefully what can and can not/no longer be exchanged, again in close consultation with international allies. In any case, any future Dutch or European deal with China must always strictly adhere to the principle of reciprocity. The granting of special preferences to Beijing should be a thing of the past. Maintaining leverage over Beijing is critical and crucial.
But what to do in the very short term, if the PRC is not willing to show any restraint? Quite a few steps could be taken by the Netherlands fairly quickly in coordination with the EU, to name just a few:
- reduce the number of Chinese students at TUs. Mandatory course on the role of democracy in the Netherlands / Europe for all foreign students at universities
- re-examine existing academic collaborations with China in the field of sensitive technology and know-how and immediately discontinue if concluded they pose a threat to national security
- rapid implementation of a stricter export regime for dual-use goods
- quickly decide to completely phase out Huawei from the Dutch telecom network
- defer ratification of CAI to an indefinite date: at least aim for a new clause to be included in the treaty whereby China commits itself to follow the ILO labor standard with a clear implementation timeline and a dispute procedure. No ratification if Chinese sanctions on any Dutch or European parliament members are still in force
- impose targeted sanctions against Chinese officials in Hong Kong who assisted in the Chinese annexation and arrest of opposition members
- intensify contacts with Taiwan: work on an international declaration of support for Taiwan against Chinese aggression
For about two years, mijngroeve.nl has tried to explain why it can no longer be business as usual in the relationship with Xi’s China. It has taken quite a long time for China to be placed on the Dutch and European political agenda. A coherent European strategy is still hard to find, but let’s keep some hope…
The relationship between the US-China will remain very tense this year, the arrival of the Biden government will not change that, as the reader of mijngroeve.nl knows. The British fleet is meanwhile heading for the South China Sea to send together with the US a strong signal to China about the importance of free passage or marum liberum.
At the heart of the geopolitical quarrels with China stands technology, in particular semiconductors. Mijngroeve.nl has repeatedly highlighted the crucial role Taiwan plays in the supply chain. The EU has recently expressed its ambition to double its own semiconductor production to 20 percent of the global production by 2030 as part of its ‘strategic autonomy’ and ‘Digital Compass 2030’ plans. By then, Europe should have the most advanced technology processes (5nm to 2nm) in-house, according to the European Commission.
Mijngroeve.nl has serious doubts whether European companies will be able to develop such advanced technology by themselves so quickly. Seeking collaboration with for example TSMC Taiwan, the worldwide foundry & technology leader, would perhaps be wise. But the democratic Taiwanese government won’t be willing to share that technological lead without getting anything in return. Taiwan knows very well that in the cynical international geopolitical game, democracy and human rights are often not the decisive factors for action by Western political leaders. The technological and related economic dependence of the West on Taiwan offers the island a better guarantee of the continued military protection of the USA…
Xi’s actual military focus is, of course, the incorporation of Taiwan. It forces the EU to re-think or review its One China policy: an invasion of Taiwan has consequences for the security and prosperity of Europe and also the Netherlands, even though Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Blok continues to claim that China does not pose an immediate threat to our national security. NATO seems to have a different opinion. The Taiwan question is not just another remote problem at the other side of the world that can be conveniently ignored.
Last year, the Dutch government announced that Ms. Evertsen will be part of the British fleet traveling for a training exercise to the Far East, adding immediately that the Dutch frigate would probably not show up in the South China Sea. Instead it allegedly would head towards Indonesia instead of passing through the Taiwan Strait. Persistent rumors in The Hague have left the impression that the Dutch reticence is mainly prompted by Chinese threats of trade repercussions.
I wonder whether, given all the recent developments in the relations with China, Dutch Parliament will be in favor of having the frigate divert towards the South China Sea after all….