We can’t make China dance to our tune

11 Oct 2022 - 15:28
Source: Reuters

Position paper for the Round Table discussion, “China”, Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives. Foreign policy and human rights issues China in relation to Europe and the Netherlands.

On 6 October of this year, China enjoyed a major victory in the Human Rights Council of the United Nations when a call by western nations to formally debate the human rights violations in the Chinese province of Xinjiang failed to secure a majority, even though these violations were sharply condemned only recently in a report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. This victory for China is not a one-off but reflects a trend of successful Chinese diplomacy.

China’s foreign policy and diplomatic actions are increasingly challenging the Netherlands and Europe; not just through its rejection of the universality of human rights and its contravention of international trade and investment rules, but also due to China’s bullying of small countries and issues such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which China has refused to condemn.

How should we relate to China, as a country that is undermining the international liberal world order but is also the world’s second-largest economy and a principal player in the globalised system of value chains and strategic resources, ranging from rare metals and semiconductors to construction materials and medicines? Before addressing this question, it is important to bear in mind a number of key points concerning China’s foreign policy.

Key points of China’s foreign policy and diplomacy

China’s foreign policy is driven by several needs:

  • To maintain national security, including the security (read: preserving the power) of the Chinese Communist Party and party leader Xi Jinping.
  • The need for domestic economic and technological development, as part of China’s attempt to restore its (purported) historical position as a prosperous and leading world power (‘rejuvenation’).
  • To create a stable international environment that is favourable to achieving the goals above.
  • To avoid all concessions with respect to what China refers to as its ‘core interests’: to fully maintain China’s (claimed) sovereignty and territorial integrity regarding Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang and the South China Sea.

Regarding these needs, China feels threatened and constrained by western nations; first and foremost by the United States, but increasingly by the European Union (EU) as well, which designated China a ‘systemic rival’ in 2019 and is developing policies perceived as anti-Chinese by Beijing. This Chinese perception contributes to the following features of China’s foreign policy:

  • Adopting the stance of a geopolitical actor that is unafraid to engage in robust power play; displayed for instance by punishing countries, organisations and individuals that show undesirable behaviour in  China’s view (coercion).
  • Seeking to reform the current system of global governance, aimed at a greater acknowledgement of and room for China’s political system and vision on the world order, in which the universality of liberal values and human rights is denied. China is attempting to strengthen its role in global governance by increasing its influence on rule-making, on setting the agenda, and on shaping global opinion; which efforts have been meeting with success.
  • The changing position of the EU within the Chinese diplomatic hierarchy. Aside from a focus on neighbouring nations and the Asian region, China’s diplomacy is strongly aimed at world powers, first of all the United States and Russia, as illustrated by China’s ‘no limits friendship’ with Russia. China also recognises the EU as a world power, but  one whose internal problems and divisions prevent it from fulfilling its geopolitical ambitions and is therefore a less powerful player. At the same time, Europe remains an important economic partner for China.

How should we relate to China?

What does all this mean for the Netherlands and Europe? It is clear, first of all, that the Netherlands cannot exert any influence on its own and that the current focus on forming a common front within the EU and with other befriended countries is both sensible and essential. After all, China talks the language of power and that’s a game in which numbers count. We must also accept that the economic entanglement with and dependencies on China are such that it would be impossible to detach ourselves from China without hugely damaging European economies. And it is also vital to collaborate with China in tackling major global issues such as climate change, food security and health.

Attempts to provoke, constrain or isolate China will not dissuade Beijing from seeking to become prosperous, powerful and self-sufficient. It is better therefore to engage with China where possible and useful, and to focus on strengthening our own economic and political resilience. As long as the Netherlands and Europe form robust knowledge economies, we will be an important player whose interests and views must be taken seriously by China. With regard to global governance, too, strengthening our own capacity and role in multilateral organisations remains the best way to encourage compliance with our standards and values. However, competing with China in the Global South requires a fundamentally different approach to these countries, namely one where we need to back up our words with actions (and financial resources). We will also need to engage in a ‘battle of the narratives’. China is vulnerable with respect to its domestic model, which offers limited attraction to the Global South and other nations, but it has gained considerable political clout as leader of the non-western world.

In sum: since the hegemony of our liberal world order is clearly a thing of the past, and any attempt to isolate China will prove ineffectual, we will need to engage with China in a competitive spirit by relying on and investing in our own strength. And this will certainly require intensive diplomatic efforts, as sweet talk alone will simply not do.

Find the Dutch translation here.