As Beijing bullies countries around the world, the West should seize the chance to take a stand
Spinelessness has its limits. That is what China is proving with its relentlessly thin-skinned and bombastic treatment of the outside world. The latest example comes from a furore around a letter written by EU ambassadors in Beijing. They wanted to mark the 45th anniversary of diplomatic relations with China by calling for greater co-operation. Published in the Chinese Communist Party’s English-language paper, China Daily, the missive would have been just a footnote in a long-running story: democracies’ efforts to pretend relations with a totalitarian adversary are friendly and normal.
Instead, it became the centre of a scandal. At the last minute Chinese officials insisted on the removal of a clause that dared to mention “the outbreak of the coronavirus in China, and its subsequent spread to the rest of the world over the past three months”. The EU’s envoy in Beijing agreed to this change without consulting fellow ambassadors. That prompted fury in foreign ministries across Europe and a rare public rebuke from his bosses in Brussels.
This storm in a diplomatic wine glass exemplifies not just the cluelessness of some EU officials but an important new trend. The more China bullies the outside world, the greater the backlash it creates. The countries complaining about the censorship of the ambassadors’ letter included not just hawks such as Sweden and Lithuania but cautious heavyweights: France, Germany and — most surprising — Italy. That country, hard-hit by the pandemic, has been the centrepiece of a full-blown Chinese influence campaign involving covert financial payments and high-profile shipments of medical aid, coupled with a propaganda blizzard claiming that traditional western allies have left Italy in the lurch.
The Beijing leadership’s overreach is also visible in its obsessive desire to impose its “one China” policy on Hong Kong and Taiwan. The outside world has no desire to pick a fight with the mainland regime over these territories; many locals simply want to get on with their lives rather than worry about geopolitics. But brazen breaches of the “one country, two systems” deal over the governance of the former British colony have stoked resentment at home and fear abroad. Splenetic Chinese rhetoric — Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters were referred to as a “virus” that must be “eradicated” — have failed to daunt activists and nixed any chance, for the foreseeable future, of persuading the Taiwanese to accept reunification.
Moreover, other countries are inching up their support for Taiwan. Western governments including Canada and Australia are making a concerted effort to restore its observer status at the World Health Assembly, which opens its annual meeting this weekend. The offshore Chinese democracy was excluded from this body in 2016 because of pressure from the communist regime in Beijing. The Dutch trade and investment mission in the Taiwanese capital recently shortened its name to “Netherlands Office Taipei”, highlighting a broader, political mandate, and changed its logo to show the colours of the Dutch flag.
The regime in Beijing could have ignored this tiny, symbolic twitch towards political relations with Taiwan. Nobody would have noticed. Instead, it issued a furious complaint — guaranteeing publicity for the move — and threatened to halt shipments of medical supplies.
Overuse makes these threats less credible. Australia has brushed aside warnings of trade sanctions. Instead, it is stepping up support for an independent international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus. American senators responded to Chinese pressure on Australia with a strongly phrased bipartisan letter of support, signed “in mateship”. Germany has complained that China tried to extort public expressions of gratitude for the provision of medical aid. In Poland, Chinese officials tried the same trick on President Duda. This overbearing, needy approach brings not compliant kowtows, but resentment, leaks and renewed determination.
Countries all over the world are now worrying about the fragility of supply chains that depend too heavily on China. Here in Britain, amid continuing worries about the decision to allow Huawei, the Chinese telecoms giant, to play a role in the next-generation 5G mobile phone network, hawkish Conservatives have launched the China Research Group, which aims to sharpen thinking on relations with the regime in Beijing.
The backlash is strongest in the US, which now explicitly blames the Chinese authorities for the pandemic. A dossier (purportedly the result of an investigation by the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance) leaked to an Australian newspaper accuses the communist authorities of deliberately suppressing evidence in an “assault on international transparency”. Two thirds of Americans now mistrust China, according to the Pew Research Center. Some want to sue for compensation. Restrictions on Chinese acquisitions of US companies, and on Chinese students in sensitive science and engineering fields, are under consideration.
These are dismal results for China’s approach of encouraging its diplomats to be aggressive and vocal “Wolf Warriors”, named after a fearsome Chinese screen hero. But western responses are still tactical and unco-ordinated. President Trump scorns allies rather than wooing them. Other western countries, notably in Europe, are blinded by anti-Americanism to the broader strategic picture. Our divisions remain China’s best hope.