In a pretty surprising move, on September 16, the European Parliament published a resolution on a new EU-China strategy. This 18-page document, which mentions “China” more than 160 times, was released immediately after US President Joe Biden, along with his faithful Anglo-Saxon brethren from Australia (Prime Minister Scott Morrison) and Britain (Prime Minister Boris Johnson), struck a new Cold War–like deal, commonly known as “AUKUS.” Why surprising?
What both developments have in common is that they aim to boost Western powers’ presence in the Indo-Pacific region in an effort to counter China’s rise.
Setting the stage for ‘la grande gaffe’
Either someone was really quick and prepared the EU resolution overnight (which is impossible), or it was already waiting in the queue to be spectacularly, with theatrical dramaturgy, announced once the main perpetrators of the anti-China foray finished their leadership bit so that Europe could go ahead and follow.
“We must survive on our own, as others do,” the EU’s foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell said during the announcement of the bloc’s grand strategy for the Indo-Pacific region, recalling French President Emmanuel Macron’s “strategic autonomy” mantra.
Borrell also referred to the Naval Group’s loss of a US$40 billion contract canceled by Prime Minister Morrison favoring nuclear-powered submarines built with US know-how. “I understand the extent to which the French government must be disappointed,” the diplomat concluded.
The EU’s chairman, Charles Michel, further asserted that AUKUS “demonstrates the need for a common EU approach in a region of strategic interest.”
So what exactly is the EU’s “strategic interest” in the Indo-Pacific region, and what “common approach” does it want to embrace to achieve it?
Reviving Yellow Peril narrative
“China is asserting a stronger global role both as an economic power and as foreign-policy actor, which poses serious political, economic, security and technological challenges to the EU, which in turn has significant and long-lasting consequences for the world order, and poses serious threats to rules-based multilateralism and core democratic values,” we can read under Point B of the resolution.
The Point C of the document expresses regret over China’s one-party system and the Communist Party of China’s commitment to Marxism-Leninism, which, allegedly, precludes it from embracing “democratic values such as individual freedom, freedom of speech and freedom of religion,” as it takes place in more civilized parts of the world like Europe and the US.
The core part of the resolution relates to the recommendation provided to the vice-president of the commission / high representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (VP/HR) and the Council on the importance of developing “a more assertive, comprehensive and consistent EU-China strategy that unites all Member States and shapes relations with China in the interest of the EU as a whole,” which can be found under Article 1 (a).
Under Article 1 (b), we can see that this strategy should be based on the following six pillars:
- Open dialogue and cooperation on global challenges;
- Enhanced engagement on universal values, international norms and human rights;
- Analysis and identification of the risks, vulnerabilities and challenges;
- Building partnerships with like-minded partners;
- Fostering open strategic autonomy, including in trade and investment relations;
- Defense and promotion of core European interests and values by transforming the EU into a more effective geopolitical actor.
Each pillar is rich in multiple articles, so I will pay attention only to the most important ones.
While it has to be admitted that some of the pillars do have merit in advocating for much-needed cooperation on “preventing Afghanistan from becoming a new terrorist base and discouraging North Korea from continuing its nuclear program,” or tackling issues like the environment and climate change, the economic recovery after the pandemic, and the fight against global health crises, it has to be admitted that the overall tone is highly condescending, not to say neocolonial.
Divide et impera 2.0
Among several complaints and outrageous demands, we can see the ongoing pattern of applying what Antony Anghie, a professor at the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law and secretary general of the Asian Society of International Law, calls the “dynamic of difference.”
In this case, we are dealing with the “difference” between civilized democratic European values and non-European communist authoritarian values, with human rights being portrayed as the crux of the matter.
While human rights are the most precious reward being obtained by the formally colonized world during the ongoing struggle with the Western colonial powers, in this document, according to Oxford University political theorist Jeanne Morefield’s article “When neoliberalism hijacked human rights” published in Jacobin magazine on May 1, 2020, they serve as “a weapon to be used against anti-colonial projects” like, for example, the Belt and Road Initiative.
It is worth mentioning that Brussels perceives the BRI as a “threat stemming from China,” among other initiatives like the “dual circulation strategy, 14th Five Year Plan, and Made in China 2025, China Standards 2035 and 16+1 policies, including its military modernization and capacity buildup” – as we can read under Article 22 of the resolution.
“We want to create links and not dependencies,” said Commission President Ursula von der Leyen while promoting the “Global Gateway” project aimed at competing with the BRI. “We want to create links and not dependencies,” she continued with a jab aimed at Beijing.
“We are good at financing roads. But it does not make sense for Europe to build a perfect road between a Chinese-owned copper mine and a Chinese-owned harbor. We have to get smarter when it comes to these kinds of investments,” von der Leyen concluded, adding that priority would be given to connectivity endeavors expected to be discussed at a regional summit next February.
Her comments fit the narrative of an ongoing smear campaign accusing China of practicing “debt-trap diplomacy,” which for those familiar with the subject is nothing more than a “meme” invented by Indian propaganda in 2017, as Deborah Bräutigam, the Bernard L Schwartz Professor in International Political Economy and director of the China Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), argues in an article published in the journal Area Development and Policy on December 9, 2019.
To put it simply, “The Chinese ‘debt trap’ is a myth,” as an op-ed in The Atlantic magazine co-authored by Bräutigam with Meg Rithmire, F Warren McFarlan Associate Professor at Harvard Business School, puts it.
Human rights and convenient double standard
Moving further with its weaponization of human rights, the entity that “underdeveloped Africa” in the first place, to recall Walter Rodney’s famous book of the same title, the resolution also calls for “the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to launch independent legal investigations into alleged genocide, alleged crimes against humanity and human-rights violations, including forced-labor programs taking place in several regions in China,” namely Xinjiang.
While the White Savior complex visibly emanates from almost every point of this neocolonial resolution, Europe, which pledges to seek a separate trade deal with Taiwan, wants to meddle in Hong Kong’s internal affairs (a clear departure from the “one China” policy) and deploy (no matter how cynical that may sound, bearing in mind its naval potential) more ships in the South China Sea to keep the rising non-Caucasian power in check, demands from China to put “the principle of reciprocity at its core” when it comes to their bilateral trade and investment relationship.
But this “Western political concept … is a non-starter,” to quote a Hong Kong-based private investor from France, David Baverez, whom I interviewed for Asia Times in March.
“If I am Chinese, how can you offer me reciprocity when I open to you a market of 1.4 billion consumers?” Baverez asked.
Doomsday Clock is still ticking
Despite allegedly seeking “strategic autonomy” grandeur, the EU insists on a policy “to develop and promote an ambitious and dynamic trans-Atlantic relationship with the US government, based on our shared history, values and interests, in the framework of a Transatlantic Dialogue on China.”
What that means in practice is that Brussels not only wishes to align its foreign policy toward Beijing with that of the US in an attempt to support its quest to maintain global hegemony but, in doing so, dangerously exaggerates any potential threat that may emanate from China and its political system.
Being driven by trade and economic motives, Europe tries to justify Western expansion and its alleged moral dominance by starting a new “civilizing mission,” yet this time aimed at the Chinese communist barbarians, whose wealth is so tempting but whose mere existence is despised.
What has to be remembered is that “containing China is not a feasible option,” as British journalist Martin Wolf wrote some time ago in an op-ed of the same title in the Financial Times. Hence there is not much to be done other than starting a nuclear war with the second-biggest economy in the world and ultimately annihilating the entire planet in the course of this Dr Strangelove-like scenario.
By knowing this and learning from its often inglorious experiences in dealing with non-European peoples in the past, Brussels should refrain from mimicking the maximalist approach emerging in the US, as it will undoubtedly produce even more hardliners in the Middle Kingdom in return.
After all, to paraphrase the words of Philip Stephens, the director of the editorial board and chief political commentator at the Financial Times, falling further into the arms of Washington does not amount to an autonomous foreign policy.
“Europeans are still not thinking strategically about where their own core interests lie,” said Kishore Mahbubani in his interview by the late Andrew Moody for China Daily published on May 12, 2020, while adding that they mistakenly “keep assuming their core strategic interests are aligned with those of the United States.”
The prominent former Singaporean diplomat also explained that “the key part of the word geopolitics is ‘geo,’ and that is about geography.”
Since the EU is striving to turn itself “into a more effective geopolitical actor,” politicians and policymakers in Europe would be well advised to get out of Washington’s shadow and instead of adding more fuel to an increasingly hostile competition between the two largest economies in the world try to do their best to position Brussels as a credible broker.
To begin with, instead of competing, they should listen to Mahbubani and start partnering with China “to develop Africa to forestall future waves of migrants from” that continent. If they fail to get this right and “follow their heart, instead of head,” soon there will be no Europe, which they so much want to preserve by joining the US in antagonizing their most important ally in tackling most pressing challenges of the future.
The time is now. There will be no second chance.