The calamity was inevitable. The Biden administration’s China policy, which is now clearly visible, is also forcing the Europeans to think more about their China policy. So far, however, only a willingness to be aggressive in line with American expectations is apparent. This has little to do with a success-oriented and constructive policy. In Germany in particular, the issue could become particularly explosive after a possible change of government. China is not necessarily making things easy for us.
Only one thing is clear at present: China’s economic rise has power-political consequences and the potential to fundamentally shift the geopolitical balance of the 21st century. This is certainly not a new idea, but the more clearly the consequences of this development become perceptible, the more unease is growing among Western politicians, entrepreneurs and commentators. The willingness to think in extremes is increasing: is Matthias Döpfner right in calling for a close alignment with the USA or, on the contrary, Stefan Baron, who leaves it at a misleading but simple “Yankee go home”? Or rather Sigmar Gabriel, who, in last week’s China.Table, reflected matter-of-factly on the “farewell to the Atlantic”, but in the end only joined in the eternal chants of hope for a Europe that is finally capable of acting on an equal footing with Washington?
First, we should not indulge in delusions of grandeur that we can “manage” China’s rise. China cannot be managed from the outside, just as it cannot be contained, by the way. Our American friends have not yet understood this and are under the delusion that it is still time to take the necessary steps to stop China’s rise in power politics. And just because they believe in the hammer of their military, you also believe China is a nail that only needs to be hammered in again. Between the hammer and the nail in this case, however, is your own thumb.
China bashing without expertise
Meanwhile, frustration is growing in the political arena, and with it the willingness to resort to ever harsher formulations in China policy. China’s increasingly self-confident foreign policy behavior readily encourages this fury of criticism with the usual irritants: criticism of China’s policies in Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and the Indo-Pacific is now part of the standard repertoire of a moralizing foreign policy that makes do with clear references to values but otherwise lacks any factual competence. China-bashing is booming. And sanctions are once again just the continuation of a helpless policy with opinionated means. The West might already know this in view of its sanctions record, but China has yet to learn.
European self-reminder looks increasingly clumsy. The “strategic autonomy” demanded by the French president is not even remotely reflected in reality – neither towards China nor the US. Transatlantic dreams smack of nightmares, even under Joe Biden. Because you don’t have to be an expert to recognize a simple fact: The US talks about values, but it means geopolitical influence. The Europeans do the same, but they mean economic interests. Double standards are set in both cases.
Elsewhere, even the German foreign minister acknowledges this in one of his clearer statements: Maas wants to avoid a further escalation of relations with Russia, Deutsche Welle quotes him. Maas continues: “Our position on Nord Stream 2 is well known. If the companies involved were to stop their activities, this need not have any concrete impact on the Nawalny case. We do not think it is right to isolate Russia economically. Isolating Russia economically would have the geostrategic effect of pushing Russia and China further and further together. And that cannot be in our strategic interest. If anything, it could make it even more difficult to even talk about these kinds of issues with Russia.” He is quite right about that. But anyone who says that should actually say exactly the same thing about sanctions against China. The double standards of German foreign policy and its leading representatives are always remarkable.
So what might a less moralizing China policy look like? Ideally, it should consist of at least three steps.
Military muscle-flexing is currently the order of the day in the Western Pacific. Provoked by the foreign-policy posturing of a US government that had almost been dismissed from office over Taiwan, Beijing retaliates with a targeted violation of the airspace claimed by Taiwan. As a sign of his ability to act, the new American president then moves a second aircraft carrier, the “USS Theodore Roosevelt”, into the Taiwan Strait. And suddenly the Europeans also want to be involved: The French with their nuclear submarine “Émeraude” and the British with their aircraft carrier “HMS Queen Elizabeth”. Even the Germans want to show their colors with a frigate – if it makes it over water to the Southeast Asian lake region. Symbolic power politics along the lines of the 19th century, as if one did not know about the risks of a chance confrontation with catastrophic consequences. Europe is not a Pacific power and would be well advised to urge both the US and China to reduce their military conflict potential.
Sanctions prevent dialogue
In the art of diplomacy, it is important to leave things unsaid, especially when they are obvious. China debates in the West suffer from an excess of verbal criticism. This is not to say that China criticism is not justified from a Western perspective. But what can China-bashing really achieve or improve? Let’s just take the most popular example at the moment: using the events in Xinjiang as a reason for sanctions, as the European Union has just done, secures domestic political approval and media applause, but it does not help the people in the affected regions. Instead, it only tempts China into acts of defiance and ensures that even the last channel of dialogue is blocked.
One basic problem becomes obvious: politicians know very well what is expected of them at home, in their constituencies and party committees, and what language they want to hear. Anyone who criticizes China loudly can be sure of applause. Often it’s not primarily about China, but about visibility in the German and European media and popularity in the respective domestic politics.
Instead of pithy words, thick boards need to be drilled. Anyone who only looks at China through the lens of Western values has nothing more to learn about this complex and, for us, paradoxical country, because the verdict is a foregone conclusion anyway. But anyone who claims to want to influence domestic political events in China must do everything possible to keep channels of dialogue open and not close them off with provocative and overly aggressive language.
Talking to China: the tone makes the music
Instead of relying on aggressive accusations and military threatening gestures, a currently less popular strategy seems to have the potential to be the silver bullet in the long run after all: so can’t we talk to China about Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet? Of course, you can. But the tone makes the music. If you don’t immediately put the country in the dock with pithy words, you at least have the chance to be heard – and perhaps also to score a success or two in quiet diplomacy.
Anyone who recognizes that the major global problems of our time can only be solved together with China and not without or against China should actually come up with the idea themselves, without much thought, that we need to talk, negotiate and perhaps even argue with this country and its government in order to find solutions that are acceptable to all sides. Only in this way will it be possible to ensure the joint elaboration of global goods. Only in this way will it be possible to maintain peace and prosperity.
It is high time that China policy in the West is seen as a permanent management task and not as a problem that demands a solution with all its might, quickly and definitively. The rise of China does not mean the downfall of the West, but it does mean the need to banish the fatal power-political thought patterns of the 20th century to the mothballs of history.
Eberhard Sandschneider, was Professor of Chinese Politics and International Relations at Freie Universität Berlin from 1998 to 2020. Today he is a partner at the consulting firm “Berlin Global Advisors”.