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Europe, China, and the New Global Hierarchy

Europe has benefited greatly from the fact that the dominant power for the past 75 years has been a liberal democracy—a flawed liberal democracy, no doubt, but a liberal democracy all the same.

· 11 min read
Europe, China, and the New Global Hierarchy
<p><em>Featured image: Friends of Europe (Flickr)

Seen from Beijing, Europe is an Asian peninsula.
~Angela Merkel

For more than 20 years the Chinese Communist Party engaged the world wearing the mask of smiling diplomacy, and for more than 20 years the world was fooled. We believed in such unlikely concepts as “Chimerica” and “Chindia,” and we trusted the sickly-sweet promise of “win-win co-operation.” There were always isolated voices warning us of Beijing’s intentions throughout those years—Cassandras who knew what lay ahead—but we chose to ignore them, for the most part. This began to change in 2017 with the Trump administration, which refused to accept Beijing at face value. And 2020 was the year the Party’s mask finally slipped. It became impossible to ignore the volumes—the libraries—of evidence pointing to genocide in the concentration camps of Xinjiang. Meanwhile 30 years’ worth of promises about Hong Kong’s political and civil liberties proved to be emptier than a Xinjiang mosque, as that once-free city was abruptly swallowed into the totalitarian motherland.

By the end of 2020, China’s relationships with the US and Australia had reached their lowest point in living memory, while Sino-British relations weren’t far behind. Yet the European Commission chose this moment to sign a major new investment treaty with Beijing. The deal appeared to have been rushed to completion just before Joe Biden’s inauguration, as if to avoid the fuss that a new American administration would be sure to make. Indeed, incoming National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan felt sore enough to send a pointed tweet: “The Biden-Harris administration would welcome early consultations with our European partners on our common concerns about China’s economic practices.”

The truth is that Brussels has been drifting further and further from Washington ever since the election of Donald Trump, and there are few signs the winds will change now that Biden has taken office. In 2017, Merkel said that Europe could no longer rely on America. By 2020, it seemed truer to say that Europe would rely on China from now on. Indeed, diplomats like Emmanuel Bonne (Macron’s foreign policy adviser) have been most enthusiastic about “France’s readiness to step up strategic communication with China.” In his gushing deference, Bonne can sometimes sound like a man with a gun to his head: “France respects China’s sovereignty, appreciates the sensitivity of Hong Kong-related issues, and has no intention of interfering in Hong Kong affairs.” There are times when the language of neutrality reveals with painful clarity that a side has been chosen.

Brussels officials talk of “strategic autonomy,” of course. They hope to carve out a path to self-sufficiency while at the same time enjoying mutually beneficial relationships with partners like Beijing. The problem is that mutually beneficial relationships are not possible with predators. As successive American administrations have found, those who maintain close connections with the Communist Party will eventually suffer large-scale intellectual property theft and the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs.1

Brussels can hardly expect that Beijing will respect this new agreement. Recall the various promises that were made regarding Hong Kong: all of them were broken. Party officials may have signed a legal document recognising the city’s special administrative status, but this was purely for show. In 2017, having apparently now ascended to a position above the law, they declared that the document had “no practical significance.” Remember how Barack Obama was given firm assurance that Beijing would never militarize the South China Sea? There were handshakes and smiles all round, and then Beijing proceeded to militarize the South China Sea.

Indeed, some of the commitments included as part of the new deal echo those made 20 years ago, when China first joined the World Trade Organisation. It was agreed in 2001 that prices in every sector would be determined by market forces; that state-owned enterprises would begin operating free of state influence; that international norms regarding intellectual property would be respected; and so on. After two decades, we can see that the Communist Party has kept not one of its promises.

The error in Western thinking was to view CCP officials as civilised counterparts. We failed to see that we were dealing with a pack of thugs and grifters—men for whom the rule of law is neither reality nor ideal, but façade. This lesson has now been learned in some quarters, but clearly not in the upper echelons of the European Union. This new investment deal even includes a reference to “commitments on forced labour,” which is little short of an insult when we consider the hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs who have been made to toil all day till dusk in the cotton fields of Xinjiang. The truth is that the EU has been fooled. There will be no “win-win situation.” Not when dealing with the Communist Party, which has always viewed geopolitics as a zero-sum game. In the words of Bilahari Kausikan, once Singapore’s top diplomat, “only the irredeemably corrupt or the terminally naïve take seriously Beijing’s rhetoric about a ‘community of common destiny.’”

It seems likely that Ursula von der Leyen and the rest of the Commission actually imagine Europe to be the stronger partner in this new deal. Back when the Belt and Road began to gain traction, Brussels saw a multinational project of economic integration and concluded that the CCP must be following the EU’s lead. In a policy paper entitled “Absorb and Conquer,” the European Council on Foreign Relations laid out its response. China had “chosen to compete on the EU’s terrain,” the paper explained, and so “European policymakers need not fear cooperating with these initiatives… Rather, the EU should respond by absorbing these projects into an inclusive order.”

Brussels was persisting with the illusion of authority. But the time is long past when the great European powers looked out across all hemispheres and determined how the world would be run. The continent no longer sits at the centre of global affairs, no matter what our maps may tell us. Today, two new empires have risen: one of them thousands of miles to the west, the other thousands of miles to the east. If Europe fails to align itself with the right empire—the Western one—it will soon find itself a mere “appendage of Eurasia,” in Henry Kissinger’s analysis. This will leave it “at the mercy of a China that wants to restore its historic role as the Middle Kingdom and be the principal adviser to all humanity.”

The European Union often appears surprised when it comes up against the new order, like a man repeatedly smacking his face against a glass door. The Party’s “wolf warrior” diplomat Lu Shaye recently described a prominent French academic as a “mad hyena,” and when the country’s Foreign Ministry summoned him to remonstrate, the summons was snubbed. As Beijing grows more confident, it will abandon even the pretence of playing by the same rules as the rest of the international community.

Europe’s lowly global position has only become more apparent in the wake of COVID-19. The very public failures of the EU’s vaccine rollout have exposed the Union’s vulnerability, even if Brussels still can’t see it. Repeated delays in the procurement program left it weeks behind the UK in granting regulatory approval, and months behind in working to resolve production issues. This lumbering sloth was doubtless due to the European Commission having been given sole responsibility for purchasing and allocating vaccines, a project largely overseen by von der Leyen herself. Had individual states been granted more initiative, many of them would be in a better position today.

Brussels proceeded to make a bad situation much worse, squabbling with Britain in a manner that demonstrated a remarkable lack of concern for the EU’s own citizens. The rot started with a report in the German daily Handelsblatt that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was only eight percent effective in over-65s. This figure came from “several sources” in the German government, apparently, but details were not provided. The figure has no basis in any known research. Next came accusations of adverse effects caused by the same vaccine. By March 10th, there had been 30 reports of blood clots among the five million EU residents who had received the AstraZeneca jab. As pointed out in the Economist, this is “no more remarkable than the fact that some of them will have suddenly had relief from chronic back pain or seen their cancer go into remission.”

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But the twin claims of inefficacy and clotting produced a dramatic reaction on the continent. The vaccine was paused by authorities in Germany, France, Italy, Norway, Romania, Sweden, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Denmark, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Appointments were cast into limbo, queues of people waiting for their jab were sent home (in those countries where the ban took place with immediate effect), and members of the public recently inoculated were left wondering if they should expect to develop life-threatening blood clots over the next few days.

Several states restarted their programs after large-scale trials showed high efficacy among older people and no increased risk of thromboembolism. Unfortunately, Europe now lags far behind other parts of the world in the race to vaccinate—and that includes Britain, the recent divorcee, which must be particularly embarrassing for Brussels. The UK has been moving over four times faster than the EU. In recent days, of course, the situation has become more complicated, with the British decision to offer an alternative dose to under-30s due to the rarity of the particular type of blood clot suffered. It is being assumed, though it is not yet proven, that we will indeed find a causal link with the Oxford jab. Nevertheless, the United Kingdom is continuing with AstraZeneca, while the revival of the clotting allegation in Europe (by the head of vaccines strategy at the European Medicines Agency) has raised the possibility of yet another interruption on the continent.

Such excessive caution is sure to cost lives. People will continue to catch COVID-19 every time the vaccine is paused, and a small proportion of these people will die as a result. The repeated pauses are likely to cause a long-term dent in public confidence, leading to lower take-up of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine (and maybe of all vaccines), and eventually more deaths. “It will be extremely hard to restore faith,” says Karl Lauterbach, health spokesman for the Social Democratic Party.

The European Commission is seeking to cover its blushes with bravado. Von der Leyen has threatened to invoke emergency powers and snatch vaccines—”Europe’s fair share“—from Britain. While authorities bicker and bray, the more infectious UK variant of the virus surges through an uninoculated populace. Now the dreaded lockdowns have started yet again. There can be little patience left among Europe’s exhausted publics.

Douglas Murray reminds us that countries which are limber and independent—Israel, Britain, Singapore—have been able to act fastest when it comes to vaccination. We must not forget that EU member states could have done similarly, were it not for “the EU’s fundamental principle: that its members must act in concert.” In practice, this just means that everyone must move at the pace of the slowest member. Some states have realised this, of course and have given up on Brussels already. Austria and Denmark are obtaining vaccines via Israel, while Hungary and Slovakia are putting their hopes in Russia’s Sputnik V, and Poland is considering China’s Sinovac.

This could be bad news for the Polish public. The blood clotting pinned on the AstraZeneca jab is still the subject of angry debate, but Sinovac has been linked to cases of facial paralysis among Hongkongers—something we would not expect to see under normal circumstances with anything like the regularity of blood clots (40,000 cases per year in the US, for instance, as compared to 900,000). Meanwhile, positive coronavirus test results have been rising steadily in Chile, Pakistan, and Turkey, despite these countries having administered millions of Sinovac doses over the past two months.

At this stage we lack the data to draw any definite conclusions, but the suspicion must be that there really is something wrong with China’s flagship vaccine. No doubt this would be the result of an over-hasty development process, due in part to urgent top-down pressure to compete with the United States, and in part to the slapdash working practices endemic to communist societies.

It’s not just the Poles who should be worried. If the Kremlin is to believed, Merkel has been discussing with Putin the possibility of using Sputnik V continent-wide. The problem is that Russian manufacturers have been unable to produce enough vaccines within Russia itself. When they inevitably fail to meet the demands of the EU, China will remain as the obvious choice for acquiring large quantities of vaccines. The European Commission may soon be knocking desperately at the gates of Zhongnanhai.

Whether pro-Brussels or anti-Brussels, then, European states are turning as one to Beijing. And as I have written elsewhere, the closer you are to the Chinese Communist Party, the closer you are to chaos. The EU is already paying a political price for its mishandling of the vaccine rollout. Germany’s ruling Christian Democrats crashed to defeat in the March state elections, suffering their worst-ever results in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate. Marine Le Pen sits just behind Emmanuel Macron in French polls, while populist parties now dominate the political scene in Italy. The accelerated rise of the Right will be sure to produce its own counter-backlash, and as the major European states begin to strain at the seams, the Party will be waiting to capitalise. As the journalist Gideon Rachman warns, “It is naïve to think that the darkening political climate in Beijing will never affect life in Brussels or Berlin.”

For many years now, the United States has faced criticism for positioning itself as the “world’s policeman”—a term that trips off the tongues of all US-haters, no matter their country of origin. What these people never pause to consider, and what the leaders of the EU now fail to understand, is that the existence of some manner of global guardian state is unavoidable. Just as anarchy always turns, with depressing inevitability, into “might is right,” so a supposedly level playing field will quickly rearrange itself into a hierarchy. Such is human nature. We have to accept that someone is going to be the biggest boy in the playground, whether we like it or not.

Europe has benefited greatly from the fact that the dominant power for the past 75 years has been a liberal democracy—a flawed liberal democracy, no doubt, but a liberal democracy all the same. Ursula von der Leyen and her colleagues in the European Commission must ask themselves whether they really want to live in a world where the seat of power is occupied by a techno-totalitarian and fundamentally anti-human regime—a regime that uses its advanced powers of surveillance to track people with the wrong skin colour, before herding them like cattle into concentration camps.

Might there still be time to turn things around? The European Union recently joined Britain, Canada, and the US in imposing sanctions on senior Communist Party officials over the Uyghur genocide, marking the first time since the Tiananmen Square Massacre that the EU has punished the CCP in this way. Beijing’s retaliatory sanctions against members of the European Parliament have led some to ask whether the EU-China investment deal is now being jeopardised. Kathleen Van Brempt and several other MEPs have warned that they will not ratify the deal until the sanctions are lifted.

But CCP officials are betting that Europe will not be able to recover from the pandemic without Chinese growth. They are certain that the EU will back down and abandon its own sanctions. Perhaps they are right. Perhaps Europe has been decisively trapped by the wiles of a greater power, just as Europa was tricked by Zeus in Greek myth. Brussels officials were caught up in a new Cold War that they never understood, and they chose the wrong side.


1 Robert Spalding – Stealth War: How China Took Over While America’s Elite Slept (Portfolio/Penguin, US, 2019), pp. 10–11

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