During a five-nation visit to Europe by Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅) in September last year, German Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas upbraided Wang to his face for issuing a thinly veiled threat to the Czech Republic.
“Threats have no place here [in Europe],” he said.
Maas also called on Beijing to rescind Hong Kong’s new National Security Law, implement universal suffrage in the territory and uphold its “one China, two systems” framework that guarantees a “high degree of autonomy.”
It was a refreshing moment of candor for a political bloc that all too often looks the other way for fear of upsetting the leaders of the world’s second-
largest economy. Could it be that European nations are finally prepared to stand up to Beijing’s bullies? Sadly, the answer is no.
On Dec. 30 last year, the EU and China concluded in principle a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment. For a political bloc that purports to care about democracy and human rights, the timing could not be worse; for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the deal is a major diplomatic coup.
During the seven years of negotiations leading up to the agreement, China’s behavior has steadily deteriorated to the extent that an increasing number of political thinkers are drawing parallels with 1930s Europe’s slide into fascism.
In the past year alone, the world has witnessed a marked increase in Chinese military aggression toward Taiwan, its comprehensive crushing of Hong Kong’s freedoms, an ongoing mass incarceration of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, and stepped-up cultural genocide in Inner Mongolia and Tibet.
Then there was Beijing’s cover-up of the COVID-19 pandemic, its grotesque opportunism following the virus’ spread to the rest of the world, and its continued efforts to browbeat the Australian economy in revenge for the Australian prime minister calling for an open investigation into the pandemic.
What more could Beijing have done to scupper the negotiations?
The best that can be said is that perhaps there was an economic imperative to reach an investment deal with China. With the UK having “Brexited,” the EU has lost its second-largest net contributor nation — which gave ￡11 billion (US$15 billion) in 2018. That represents a large hole in the accounts that needs to be plugged.
The EU might also be attempting to play the US against China — a high stakes gamble when US-China policy is the one area of US politics where there is consensus. Europe could end up falling between two stools if it allows itself to become dangerously hooked on Chinese investment, having alienated Washington and skimped on defense spending for decades.
Defending the deal, EU politicians have said that economics and politics can be treated separately and there is nothing in the agreement that compels European countries to keep mum about human rights breaches or other China-related issues. This is incredibly naive. The CCP has always viewed politics and economics as indivisible from one another; its ongoing economic coercion of Australia is testament to this.
However, by far the worst outcome of the agreement is that it will confirm Beijing’s long-held suspicion that the West is all talk and no action on human rights and democracy. Chinese leaders will once again conclude, as they did after the Tiananmen Square Massacre, that the West’s pious rhetoric is nothing more that hot air.
The EU is playing with fire: When it should be implementing tough sanctions, it has done the exact opposite and rewarded China for its bad behavior. In the fullness of time, this will come back to bite the EU — and the rest of the world — on its backside.
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