Amid ten consecutive weeks of protest in Hong Kong, Beijing is looking to a seemingly unlikely place for support: Europe. In recent days, Chinese ambassadors across the continent have gone on the offensive to rally Europe behind Hong Kong’s government and against the protestors. As part of their campaign to promote Beijing’s line, China’s ambassadors are publishing op-eds in local papers and publicly criticizing European leaders for failing to denounce what they are trying to frame as violent protests. The audacity of China’s efforts suggests that in Beijing’s eyes, Europe is up for grabs.
There’s a reason China thinks Europe might be persuaded. As China attempts to spread its authoritarian values across the globe, and especially as the competition between China and the United States intensifies, Europe has conspicuously avoided siding with the United States over China. European leaders remain convinced they can uphold the values and norms they share with Washington while benefitting economically from greater engagement with China. This stance is short-sighted and dangerous—putting liberal democracy in peril.
China is a close and important partner for Europe; the two sides trade roughly 1 billion Euros worth per day, and Chinese foreign direct investment in the EU totaled 29.1 and 17.3 billion Euros in 2017 and 2018 respectively. The economic opportunity that China presents—especially for countries that have lagged economically behind Western Europe—creates strong incentives to sit on the fence. Countries in Southern and Eastern Europe in particular benefit from China’s Belt and Road investment and are keen to avoid losing it.
At the EU-level, leaders have been unable to chart a clear course for dealing with China. Yes, some countries like Germany and France have driven progress on this front—the EU referred to Beijing as a “systemic rival” earlier this year, and the European Commission introduced a new framework to facilitate closer scrutiny of Chinese investments in Europe. But while EU-level joint statements and guidelines are welcome developments, implementation of the guidelines is left up to EU member states, who have different strategies to deal with China. As we have already seen, for example, some European leaders are willing to criticize China’s business practices and human rights record, while others have remained silent. This lack of cohesion prevents Europe from effectively countering the challenges that China’s rise creates or from clearly aligning with the Unites States in the ways that will be required to defend shared values.
Europe’s lack of a unified, strong approach largely stems from an absence of a European-wide consensus about the threat that China poses. Unlike Russia, which illegally annexed territory in Ukraine and regularly interferes in Europe’s democracies, China has pursued a more subtle approach to Europe. Moreover, while Russia looms large to Europe’s north, China is more distant and does not pose the same direct military threat. China’s tactics have so far obscured (or made it easier to overlook) the fact that, like Moscow, Beijing views liberal democracy as a threat to its success and stability and believes that by weakening democracy it can accelerate the decline of Western influence.
The United States has done little to help move Europe off the fence. Instead, the Trump administration has actively pushed the continent away. Withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord and the Iran nuclear deal, imposing steel and aluminum tariffs, and antagonizing some of its closest allies, including by referring to the European Union a foe, have made the United States seem like a less attractive partner than it used to be. While Washington has been antagonistic, Beijing has been careful to strike all the right chords. The CCP talks about harmonizing civilizations, invokes “values” when discussing European and Chinese commonalities, and extols the values of multilateralism. Because China and Europe increasingly find themselves on the same side of conflicts with Washington, this administration has made it easy for Beijing to present itself as the reliable and responsible global player.
Europe’s reluctance to side with the United States puts liberal democracy in danger. The closer Europe gets to China, the less opposition China will face in its efforts to re-shape norms—on issues like data and privacy, Internet freedom, AI and governance. To uphold their shared values, both the United States and Europe need to collectively push back against China’s unfair trade and investment practices, its blatant human rights abuses, and the anti-democratic norms and practices it seeks to spread. A Europe that refuses to pick sides is exactly what Beijing seeks to achieve. Beijing understood long ago that its rising economic influence would lead other countries to balance against it. In an effort to dilute Western opposition to its national interests, China has taken steps to interrupt Europe’s alignment with the United States.
Choosing the United States does not mean that Europe should forfeit all trade and economic relations with China. But as Europe advances its economic relationships with China, it must be clear-eyed about the risks that accompany those ties. Beijing expects that its economic influence will translate into lasting diplomatic leverage in Europe. It will use its investment to secure support for—or at least prevent the EU from taking a unified position against—human rights issues like Tibet, the mass detention of Uighurs in “re-education” camps in Xinjiang, and on geopolitical issues like Taiwan and the militarization of the South China Sea.
China is already using its economic relationships to pressure Europe to acquiesce to its efforts to neuter democracy and human rights protections. For example, in 2017, Greece blocked an EU statement at the UN criticizing China’s human rights record. This was almost certainly because of China’s growing economic investment in the country. As long as Europe continues to sit on the fence, actions like these will only continue.
What would it look like for Europe to get off the fence? 5G is at the forefront of the debate. Europe should follow Japan, Australia and New Zealand’s exampleand ban high-risk vendors like Huawei from building its 5G infrastructure. Allowing China—which has a history of intellectual property theft, cyber espionage and the absence of an independent judiciary that allows the CCP to leverage Chinese companies for political gain—to play a foundational role in Europe’s 5G future would aid in Chinese espionage, jeopardize U.S.-European intelligence sharing and present novel threats of disruption or exploitation. Yet despite the risks, Huawei continues to expand its foothold in Europe’s 5G landscape. Countries including the United Kingdom and the Netherlands are allowing use of Huawei equipment on non-core parts of their networks.
Europe could also work with the United States to develop a joint response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which serves as a conduit for China’s influence and tactics. Here Europe and the United States could develop common transparency, environmental and social standards, and pool their financial resources to jointly invest in those countries where their interests are most at stake. Similarly, Europe could work with Washington to better insulate supply chains against Chinese influence. Finally, Europe and the United States could develop a set of common rules for data privacy and artificial intelligence and vocally criticize China for its blatant human rights abuses. Progress on any of these fronts would be welcome. But at the heart of the matter, Europe must clearly communicate to Beijing that it will unequivocally side with America to uphold democratic norms and standards.
For certain, there has been a shift in European views on China. Europeans are more aware and concerned by the challenges that China poses and have taken real steps to push back against it. But the message coming from Europe continues to convey an aversion to choosing between the United States and China. Europe must realize where its long-term interests lie, and not let this administration or the allure of economic gains prevent the right choice. The health of liberal democracy will depend on it.