This piece was originally published in The American Interest on 15 May 2020.
By Jakub Grygiel
To partner with a predator is to surrender. Yet this is precisely the behavior some EU elites are encouraging.
The EU’s 27 ambassadors to China published an op-ed in the government-run China Daily to mark the 45th anniversary of EU-China diplomatic relations. And instead of being quickly forgotten, the op-ed turned into a diplomatic disaster, mostly for the European Union. It turns out that the text was censored by the Communist editors responding to orders from their own ministry of foreign affairs, erasing a tiny mention of the Chinese origins of COVID-19.
This is not surprising coming from a totalitarian state: Communism is one big lie and it fears even a suggestion of truth. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is, after all, not that different from its historic predecessors in Moscow and other world capitals.
The surprising part is that the EU ambassador agreed to the censored version. He accepted a lie for the promise of harmony.
But the focus on the censored text missed an even more problematic aspect of this disastrous op-ed: the EU posture toward China. It showed that some in the EU foreign policy apparatus continue to nourish the hope of a grand cooperation with Beijing on a variety of transnational issues. This is despite the EU’s own statements coming out of Brussels, and the growing realization among many of its member states, that it is time to compete rather than accommodate China,
The justification for acquiescing to the CCP-mandated lie was that, as the EU delegation helpfully clarified after the fact, the op-ed “passed key messages on a number of our priority areas to a potential audience of more than 1 billion readers. Messages on climate change and sustainability, human rights, the importance of multilateralism, the Coronavirus Global Response Summit, macro-economic assistance and debt relief for highly indebted countries.” This rationale—and the core argument of the op-ed—are even worse than the acceptance of the Communist censorship. They point to deeper problems in how the EU apparatus, or at least part of it, sees Communist China and its behavior: China continues to be treated as the key partner for the EU because the world needs their cooperation for “climate action, peace and security, sustainable development and upholding the multilateral global order.”
EU priorities are a mix of post-modern pablum (e.g. “sustainability,” “multilateralism”) and traditional principles emptied of meaning. “Human rights,” for instance, are listed as a topic for cooperation and dialogue, but without any clear statement of China’s egregious and systematic violations of basic freedoms. The CCP-led government has been putting Uighurs in concentration camps, arresting political opponents, and even silencing scientists who gave early warnings of the Wuhan virus. These are not small exceptions to otherwise stellar behavior; they are tools of control without which the CCP cannot function. We should harangue and punish them for their totalitarian conduct, not reward them by elevating them to a partner. In fact, the way the EU diplomats phrased this op-ed suggests that Beijing’s suppression of Christians, “re-education camps” for Muslims, or continued forced abortions are perhaps some of the “priority areas” to discuss, but not any more so than continued partnership to solve other pressing “global challenges.”
The inability of the EU diplomatic machinery to see China as a great power competitor is all the more damaging because it undermines the security of EU-member states—and by doing so, it weakens the very purpose of the European Union. China has been plundering Europe’s most advanced industrial capacities (for example, through a hostile takeover of the premier German industrial robotics firm Kuka in 2016). The economic detritus caused by the current China-originated pandemic will only increase the likelihood of further Chinese acquisitions in key industrial sectors. This is not the time for a “partnership” with China but for a coordinated policy to repel further Chinese predation.
To partner with a predator is to surrender. And if this is what the EU diplomatic corps is suggesting, EU member states—at least those willing to resist their colonization by China—will see even less use than usual in having a common European foreign policy. In fact, it is encouraging that in some European capitals this EU diplomatic debacle—both the acceptance of CCP censorship and the bowing to Chinese demands for continued “partnership”—has been criticized. The candidate for CDU leadership in Germany, Norbert Rottgen, bluntly condemned it in a tweet. But other countries, particularly those in the so called “16+1” group in Central and Eastern Europe, appear quiet, eager to continue to receive Chinese investment, predatory as it may be. (Incidentally, here is a rare occasion where the pro-China EU elites are in full accord with some national leaders, such as Polish President Duda, who otherwise is considered one of the “black sheep” of the region for his conservative worldview).
The EU Commission was on the right path when in a 2019 document it defined China “an economic competitor in the pursuit of technological leadership, and a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance.” And the arrogant behavior of several Chinese diplomats in various European capitals over the past two months, inveighing about every criticism of China and its bungled dealing of the virus in Wuhan, seems to have strengthened the fear among some European leaders of Chinese economic dominance and political influence.
The EU diplomats who wrote this China Daily op-ed appear hell bent on seeking a partnership with an expansionistic China, going against the very policies that are taking shape in EU member states. This divergence of views—between some European states aware of the ongoing competition with China and parts of the EU stuck in a continued search for harmony with Communist Beijing—diminishes the relevance of the EU in the age of great power competition.
Jakub Grygiel is an associate professor of politics at the Catholic University of America. His most recent book is Return of the Barbarians (Cambridge University Press, 2018).