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Confrontation does not lead to the goal

By Berthold Kuhn

Among some German experts on China, an astonishing presumption and naïvety can be observed in dealing with China. The consequences of German and European foreign policy, especially the imposition of sanctions, are not sufficiently anticipated and publicly debated. Germany needs a paradigm shift in its dealings with China that takes appropriate account of China’s influence in global politics and develops smart, rather than confrontational, strategies to give Europe more opportunities to exert influence in global politics again.

China responded to the sanctions imposed by the EU on March 22nd, 2021, against four political officials and one institution in Xinjiang with countermeasures that hit Europe and Germany much harder. In addition to several politicians, academic institutions in Europe are also affected, including the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS). Among experts who have worked in China for many years, it is well known that MERICS analyses are influenced or overshadowed by confrontational foreign and security policy theses. The sanctions hit hard many young scholars who joined MERICS after their successful graduation and often produced high-quality analyses but may have been a little naïve about the institute’s confrontational China stance. Without entries into China, the institute’s future seems compromised. Young scholars and business-related experts, in particular, are more likely to refrain from working with MERICS.

Sanctions against China fail to have an effect

The question now arises as to the meaning and effect of politically motivated sanctions. Many analyses are available, most of which come to the conclusion that the effects of sanctions are generally misjudged and, above all, must be viewed in a differentiated manner. In his research, the US economist Gary C. Hufbauer concludes that, if at all, only very extensive sanctions have an effect, that the balance of power plays a significant role, and that the sanctioning states must act in a united manner. These conditions are not met in the case of the EU sanctions against China.

The sanctions are not expected to trigger a process that will improve relations with China and thus open up opportunities for influence. Developments in Hong Kong have shown that sympathies with violent protests – there was extensive vandalism in Hong Kong – have the opposite effect. The government in Beijing only initiated drastic changes to the status of Hong Kong after the violent escalation of the protests, which now means major restrictions on freedoms. In the Global South, China’s decolonization policy toward Britain and Western partners resonates more than many suspected. Undifferentiated support for the protests has also led to mainland youth changing their minds about developments in Hong Kong and now overwhelmingly backing their own government in Beijing.

The EU’s sanctions are being imposed in order to divert attention from Europe’s fears of decline and to show allegiance to the US. In his China.Table article “China bashing is booming”, Eberhard Sandschneider put the imposition of sanctions against China in geopolitical terms: “the US talks about values, but it means geopolitical influence.” He also comes to the accurate conclusion that China cannot be managed from the outside. China-bashing is booming at a time when the EU’s global political standing is pretty tattered and the EU’s and the UK’s global policy space is at a low point.

Document No. 9 no basis for German foreign policy

Andreas Fulda, an academic working in Nottingham, now calls for a paradigm shift in German foreign policy in a reply to Eberhard Sandschneider (China.Table reported). By this he means a tougher stance towards China and refers to the party’s internal Document No. 9: “Under the conditions of “Document No. 9″ there can be no open-ended intercultural dialogue with China”. Among other things, Document No. 9 limits freedoms in academic teaching – for example, the term “civil society” has been placed on the index. The document is an expression of China’s re-ideologization, which can be deplored and criticized for making dialogues difficult. However, there are still Chinese scholars who participate in international conferences on issues of civil society engagement and also publish on them. My habilitation thesis, which has been translated into Chinese and has the term civil society in its title, has not disappeared from libraries either. However, it is absurd to want to make an internal party document the yardstick for German foreign policy.

Calls for a tougher stance against China are currently experiencing an upswing. The Economist clarified in an article on 11.02.2021 why the accusation of genocide should not apply to the situation in Xinjiang: “to confront evil, the first step is to describe it accurately”. There is no solid evidence to support this intemperate accusation. All Chinese statistics on the population development of the Uyghurs in recent years would have to be falsified. The assessment that China could be dealt with by sanctions appears to be completely detached from the global political framework. The sanctions have already led to China stepping up its diplomatic offensives. Regarding Xinjiang, China has reacted with an invitation to diplomats, which 30 diplomats from 21 states accepted.

China will continue to rise scientifically, economically, and in terms of global politics. Next year, China’s contribution to the growth of the global economy is expected to exceed 60 percent. Even in Latin America South America, China has emerged as the largest trading partner. As recently as 2000, only two percent of exports from South American countries went to China. In 2018, it was already 22.1 percent. China’s foreign trade has recently increased strongly again. 30.6 percent in exports and 38.1 percent in imports. German industry, in particular, is benefiting from this.

China’s influence in the UN expands

China will continue to expand its influence in the United Nations and the Group of Twenty (G20), instrumentalizing this influence but proactively not pursuing an aggressive foreign policy outside Asia. Overall, China’s commitment to multilateralism could be seen as a starting point for an open perspective on solving global problems. China is deeply integrated in the international exchange of goods, services, and scientific knowledge. In the context of the trade conflict with the United States, China continues to emphasize its commitment to multilateralism and the largely free trade of goods.

China’s active role in the UN underpins its commitment to strengthening global governance. However, this provokes the USA and, to some extent, European states, which see their own influence being pushed back. US criticism of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) alleged dependence on China brought the critical debate to a head and, under President Trump, led to a halt in US payments to the WHO.

EU faces economic damage

China also plays a formative role within the framework of the G20, the most important industrialized and emerging countries. The G20 summit in Hangzhou in 2016 contributed significantly to the upgrading of the group. In Hangzhou, China promoted the topic of sustainable finance, which has since received a major boost, especially at the EU level.

China is pursuing a two-track strategy in terms of foreign policy and foreign trade: On one hand, it is involved in existing international organizations, and on the other, it is (co-)founding new organizations and initiatives in which China has a leading role.

On its way to greater global influence, China will encounter a great deal of criticism and strong opposition from Western states, especially from the US, but also from the EU, Australia, and Canada. Bilateral confrontations with states in Africa and Latin America are unlikely to escalate, partly because the US is losing influence there. China will largely be able to compensate for the confrontations on the part of the USA and other states. Rather, if the confrontation with China continues, the EU runs the risk of suffering considerable economic damage and also of losing global political influence. The EU would be well advised to impress China with a resolute economic policy strategy in the direction of sustainability and climate neutrality, and to live up to its own expectations here.

Berthold Kuhn is a political scientist at the FU Berlin and consultant for international cooperation.

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