Europe Must Stand Up to China Before It’s Too Late
The EU must defend its values rather than caving to economic pressure from Beijing.
Europe’s prosperity depends on an orderly system that ensures the global flow of goods, services, capital, and—however much populists object—labor. But 2020 is turning out to be a very bad year for the rules-based international order.
Europe finds itself caught between a Chinese leadership that believes in order but not rules and a U.S. president who believes in neither. The European Union cannot assume that either Xi Jinping or Donald Trump will leave the scene or change his views in the near future. It should begin planning for a world in which the United States is no longer the main bulwark of international order and European security and in which China’s economic power is backed up with global military might.
The EU needs to start the slow process of becoming a more independent international actor, able to stand up to its rivals and to defend its values and interests. So far, the EU’s response to China’s assertive authoritarianism has been too weak. Its stance is to some extent understandable. After all, trade with China is vital to the European economy—and it will be hard to get 27 countries to agree on credible policies.
Even before the COVID-19 crisis, China had been able to leverage its investments in some EU member states to get them to block EU criticism of its human rights record. During the pandemic, it used so-called mask diplomacy—deliveries of protective equipment and medical supplies to Italy and elsewhere—to distract attention from Beijing’s responsibility for the initial spread of the coronavirus.
Last year, the EU described China as a systemic rival. In a 10-point action plan, however, the EU made no proposals for how it could resist the systemic challenge or promote its own values in response. Yet it must.
Under Xi, China has become more repressive than at any time since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, with at least a million Uighurs in the Xinjiang region imprisoned in indoctrination camps. And the recently announced Hong Kong security law confirmed what democracy activists there have long feared: China intends to erode the autonomy guaranteed to Hong Kong in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1985.
A bland EU statement after a foreign ministers’ discussion on May 29 said the steps taken were not in conformity with China’s international commitments in the joint declaration. But even this mild rebuke was undercut by the revelation that only the Swedish foreign minister had suggested that the EU should consider sanctions—and by the fact that EU foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell called China an “ally” in a press conference after the statement was published.
If China is a systemic rival—and it is—the EU needs to make sure that its values, not the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarianism, come out on top. EU member states should offer refuge to Hong Kong citizens whose rights are threatened, as the United Kingdom has: Prime Minister Boris Johnson has proposed giving almost 3 million Hong Kong residents a right to live in the U.K. and a pathway to full British citizenship.
EU members should also make clear their readiness to impose visa restrictions on Chinese or Hong Kong officials involved in any repression, as the U.S. government has. Closer to home, member states should take steps to counter Chinese influence operations, including on university campuses, and to ensure that Chinese students studying in the West are not being organized to act as agents of the party.
The EU should also step up its political and security engagement with democracies in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly those under pressure from China, including Australia and Taiwan. The EU should not unquestioningly accept China’s expansive definition of its core national interests, according to which the rest of the world should simply accept China’s claims to Taiwan, the South China Sea, and disputed islands in the East China Sea. In particular, the EU should make clear that it rejects China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and its creation of militarized islands there, and those member states with the naval capability to do so should send ships through the area to underline that these are international waters.
The EU should be braced for China to respond. Beijing has not hesitated to bully states or institutions that criticize its policies. It has already imposed tariffs or bans on some goods from Australia in retaliation for Canberra calling for an investigation of the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Chinese ambassador to Sweden has threatened Swedish media over their coverage of China’s kidnapping and imprisonment of a Swedish citizen of Chinese origin, Gui Minhai. The EU itself has been in the firing line, too—for seeking to ensure more scrutiny of the security implications of Chinese investments in Europe and for exposing Chinese involvement in disinformation campaigns relating to the coronavirus.
If the EU fails to stand up to China, Europe’s position will only worsen. EU leaders should also recognize that one of the benefits of globalization is that China’s economy depends on its trade with the West as much as the West depends on its trade with China: China’s exports to the EU and United States amounted to around $850 billion in 2019—about 20 percent of its total exports and around 6 percent of its GDP. While China has often threatened economic retaliation (for example against countries where the Dalai Lama has met government ministers) in practice, not much has happened.
In normal times, the EU would be pursuing its policies in close coordination with the United States. But when EU foreign ministers held a videoconference with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on June 15, there was little agreement about anything, and Pompeo seemingly ignored an EU proposal for a bilateral dialogue on China.
The U.S. military commitment to European defense remains, for now, but after Trump’s repeated attacks on the international institutions and agreements that have helped make the United States safe and prosperous, and his decision to withdraw about one-third of U.S. forces from Germany, it’s no longer clear that Europe could rely on NATO’s Article 5 commitment to mutual defense if Trump were reelected.
It will take Europe decades to become capable of defending itself militarily without U.S. help. After the economic devastation caused by COVID-19, EU political leaders will be tempted to cut defense and external security budgets, not increase them. But Europe must now invest in diplomacy as well as arms, to insure itself against both an authoritarian China and an unreliable America. The rules-based order is not yet lost, but if Europe dithers in the face of Chinese pressure and U.S. distraction, it may well be.