In December 2016, Spanish and Chinese authorities shut down a large phone-scamming ring based in Spain. Of the nearly 300 suspects arrested, more than 200 were Taiwanese nationals. Much to Taiwan’s displeasure, Spain agreed to extradite the suspects to China in February 2017 despite serious human rights concerns.
Spain’s decision to extradite these suspects is unprecedented; neither Spain nor any other EU Member State has ever extradited a Taiwanese national to mainland China.
This decision reflects the larger trend of Europe’s shift to accommodate China and, in particular, Spain’s persistent willingness to shelve political issues for economic gain.
A Compliant Spain?
As previously discussed, even though China and Spain signed an extradition treaty in 2005, Spain’s extradition decision is totally unprecedented. Why then did Spain so willingly accommodate China’s request? Spain’s compliance likely stems from its asymmetrical economic relationship with China.
According to World Bank data, Chinese goods accounted for 8.67% of Spanish imports in 2015, making China the country’s third largest import partner overall, and Spain’s largest import partner outside of the EU. Conversely, in 2015, Spain’s goods only accounted for 0.33% of China’s imports. Moreover, even though Chinese exports constituted a large percentage of Spain’s imports, Chinese exports to Spain accounted for only 0.96% of China’s total exports.
Additionally, China owns a sizable chunk of Spanish sovereign debt. This imbalanced relationship leaves the Spanish government with little leverage.
This being said, Spain is by no means China’s puppet. While Spain treads softly on political issues, it takes a harder stance on economic issues. For example, Spain has opposed the efforts of other EU member states to grant China market economy status, but typically adheres to Chinese preferences on issues like Tibet, Taiwan, and human rights, more so than most other EU nations. The European Council on Foreign Relations characterized this approach as “accommodating mercantilism.”
Therefore, even when presented with opportunities to take a symbolic stand against China’s atrocious record on human rights, Spain consistently backs down.
In 2014, in a court case involving a Tibetan monk with Spanish citizenship, a Spanish judge called for the arrest of former president Jiang Zemin and former premier Li Peng for their actions in Tibet. Madrid, justifiably fearing economic retribution, declined to support the ruling.
Ultimately, Spain’s extradition decision is a continuation of its long-standing policy of putting economics before politics.
Similar behavior is common throughout the EU, as most member states are heavily reliant on Chinese imports. These member states, Spain in particular, are still recovering from the recession and sovereign debt crisis, thus trade and investment take priority over abstract political issues.
Decision in context: cross-strait tensions
In 1949, the Communist Party took over China and founded the People’s Republic of China. The ousted Nationalist government subsequently fled to Taiwan and founded the Republic of China.
China and Taiwan have been locked in a contest for diplomatic recognition ever since. Both initially sought international recognition in order to legitimize their respective claims to rightful governance over “China,” but now the diplomatic contest between the two is primarily concerned with Taiwanese independence.
Between 2008 and 2016, during the tenure of Taiwan’s relatively pro-China president Ma Ying-jeou, China and Taiwan increased their political and economic ties and agreed to an unofficial “diplomatic truce,” pausing their international competition for diplomatic recognition.
However, China abruptly ended this dynamic after the election of Taiwan’s new president, Tsai Ing-wen, in 2016.
Despite the fact that Tsai has been willing to work constructively with Beijing, this shift occurred because Beijing prefers to work with the Kuomintang (KMT), a comparatively pro-China party, rather than Tsai’s independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party.
Consequently, ever since the 2016 election, Beijing has purposely worked to alienate Tsai in an attempt to sabotage her assumed bid for reelection and bolster the KMT’s prospects.
To this end, China restricted tourism from the mainland to Taiwan, established relations with Sao Tome and Principe and with Gambia, and convinced several countries, Spain most recently, to extradite Taiwanese nationals to China.
Spain, inadvertently caught up in Beijing’s efforts to pressure Tsai, had little choice but to play along.
In this context, Spain’s compliance demonstrates a reasonable aversion to provoking China in a time when the cross-strait issue is particularly salient.
However, Spain’s extradition decision is more an attempt to court Beijing than an effort to avoid its wrath. Beijing appreciates and rewards sustained accommodation.
It is no coincidence that China’s new high-speed cargo railway, which connects China to Europe, ends in Madrid. As long as Spain continues to benefit from this arrangement, its “accommodating mercantilism” can be expected to continue.