On Monday, the EU formally agreed to blacklist Chinese officials for human rights abuses, the first sanctions against Beijing since the arms embargo following the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, which is still in place. Previously, in February, the French minister of armed forces announced in a series of tweets that a nuclear-powered submarine had patrolled the South China Sea and later on the Mistral-class LHD Tonnerre and the La Fayette-class frigate Surcouf set sail to start JEANNE D’ARC 2021, which is expected to transit those latitudes twice in the forthcoming months. France will soon be joined by a Deutsche Marine frigate this year making clear that, beyond the power of attraction, military power remains important in world politics. In the meantime, despite a rise in unfavourable views across many advanced economies towards China, a report by Eurostat showed how it surpassed the US in 2020 to become the EU’s main trade partner. Notwithstanding this is not entirely true—the report only addressed trade in goods without taking into account trade in services, where the US remains the EU’s top partner—, the existence of such ‘positive interdependence’ leads to the following question: Why resorting to hard power towards China?
One possible answer may be that the lack of transparency during the first days of the pandemic from the Chinese Communist Party—with whom there is no correlation in core values—and the disruption caused by it in both European society and economy has worked as a wakeup call, as the perils of a partnership with an authoritarian regime who is progressively in position to make fundamental and permanent changes to the international order abruptly came to light. In this context, the EU may has finally opted for sanctions years after reports suggesting the existence of mass detention camps of Uyghurs instead of waiting until corporate giants in the technology, clothing and automotive sectors decide on options like reshoring or nearshoring before facing lethal brand damage. Likewise, as the US’ credibility declines, the European naval presence in China’s neighbourhood and direct sphere of influence could be a message in those contested waters, as key EU players have caught on how dangerous it could be to set such precedent allowing Chinese expansionism. In fact, after the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) was signed, the immediate EU reaction was to upgrade its relationship with ASEAN to a strategic partnership on December 1, 2020 after 44 years of formal partnership when the bloc’s biggest challenge is developing a unified approach to China, particularly in response to Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea, which overlap with claims of several ASEAN members.
Yet, in the short run, this hard power display may be more symbolic than punitive as the EU needs to foster cooperative political relations together with China, for example regarding biodiversity and climate change mitigation commitments, going beyond the current obligations. In the case of France, the manoeuvres of the Jeanne d’Arc group take place every year in different scenarios around the world to conclude the training cycle for student officers. Of course, in the few previous editions it did not sail the South China Sea but taking this year deployment as a radical change of posture in France’s foreign policy towards China would be somehow misleading considering its overseas territories nearby. The same goes to the presence in contested waters of the Rubis-class Emeraude—not part of France’s sea-based force de frappe—which comes after her port call in Guam while the Chief of Staff of the Marine Nationale met with his Japanese counterpart in Tokyo, making clear once again the importance of multilateralism in the country’s strategy in the region. Moreover, France effectively uses naval presence to promote its defence industry—both Taiwanese and Malaysian navies operate French arms, even each Chinese-built Type 054A/P frigate destined for service in the Pakistan Navy is powered by 4 SEMT Pielstick engines. Unlike France, Germany has no territories of its own in the Indo-Pacific, therefore its more timid approach to the region. Nevertheless, away from its more naïve foreign policy precept ‘Wandel durch Handel’—change through trade—, its willingness to promote the enforcement of rules and norms in the region through multilateral initiatives to guarantee open shipping routes, peace, security, and stability comes amid the latest efforts to upgrade its depleted navy strongly reliant on its partners, and the need to use it as a tool to play a more active role in international peace and security issues up to its economic status. Its latest participation in EUNAVFOR MED IRINI beyond its ongoing participation in ATALANTA could be signs of it.
On the other hand, the Chinese slogan ‘guojia zunyan shi da chulai de’ (national respect can only be obtained through fighting) illustrates the importance given to hard power by the ‘Middle Kingdom’. Its potential could be seen in the evacuation of Chinese nationals from Libya (2011), the naval exercises with Russia in the Mediterranean (both in 2013 and 2015) and in the Baltic (2017), as well as in the visit to Argel (2018). Yet, Europe’s systemic rival presence has also adopted other worrying (and enduring) shapes through time: heavy investments aimed at controlling European harbours and container terminals infrastructures for the Belt and Road Initiative and, no less importantly, people. While Article 7 of the China’s National Intelligence Law from July 2017 creates the obligation of Chinese citizens and organizations to support national intelligence work, as of January 2020, only in Spain the number of Chinese citizens (232,617) is higher than both French (107,913) and German (111,625) citizens together.
As growing economic exchange may continue, does it make any sense the use of hard power towards China? In a way, it does. Something must be done before China becomes seriously able to deter Western intervention in a conflict in this geopolitically crucial part of the world, delay the arrival or reduce the effectiveness of intervening Western forces. However, EU leaders should be careful with the fine line between smart and false moves. Last month, in her speech at the Munich Security Conference, Angela Merkel said Germany is committed both to NATO and to European defence policy, as they supplement each other and belong together. Whoever runs the US, American presence in the South China Sea will not cease, therefore a suitable option for the EU may be letting them do the job without getting involved in great power competition nor harassing China. Looking for a transatlantic new deal should not cast a shadow over the quest of a unified EU approach towards the Indo-Pacific, which would enable to play with fire without getting burn in the case of Biden or his successors decide on an even harder approach that affects EU interests negatively.
The West actively contributed to the creation of China as a heavyweight on the international stage. In his book ‘World Order’ (2004), Kissinger notes that when urged to adhere to the international system’s ‘rules of the game and ‘responsibilities,’ the visceral reaction of many Chinese—including senior leaders—has been profoundly affected by the awareness that China has not participated in making them. ‘But they expect—and sooner or later will act on this expectation—the international order to evolve in a way that enables China to become centrally involved in further international rule making, even to the point of revising some of the rules that prevail,’ he adds. For China, the time has come. While the premise ‘more trade equals less conflict’ sounds way too simplistic, how the EU will react to this challenge in the post Brexit era remains unclear.