Territorial aggression: Is it Chinese belligerence or Bhutan’s benevolence?

The influence of China over Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), particularly over 17+1 initiative, has long been thought of as an example of China’s assertiveness to undermine European unity through a “divide and rule” policy. The China’s ambition was fueled by leveraging the regional platform to extract political favors in exchange for economic benefits. However, as the contemporary dynamics has played out, the China’s credit-based offer in a neo-colonial fashion has proven ill-suited for the CEE members of European Union (EU). Moreover, Chinese investments in the 12 EU member states participating in 17+1 initiative between the year 2010 to 2019 has been approximately €8.6 billion, while China’s investment over the same period in Finland has been EUR 12 billion or in the Netherlands has been EUR 10.2 billion, which remained a major turn-off for these member countries. The disillusionment that the CEE EU member countries have begun to face with China can be grasped from the rejection of 17+1 summit in 2020 by the staunchest proponent of engagement with China, the Czech President Milos Zeman. The CEE member countries share discontent with China over mismatch between its economic promises and ultimate outcome, writes Democracy News Live.

The paradigm of international dynamics today, revolves around the realpolitik between the United States and China and is characterized by strategic rivalry. This underlying rivalry will become the predominant geopolitical trend in the post-COVID 19 Era. It is in the interest of European member countries to escape this bipolar logic, and strengthen its ‘strategic autonomy’ and ‘supranational geopolitics’. For Europeans, the COVID 19 crisis has accelerated trends observed in recent years and has brought to light some of the weaknesses in their relationship with China, which Josep Borell has captured, in what he calls ‘The Sinatra Doctrine’ which calls for building a united front and EU’s response against gradually more assertive, expansionist and authoritarian China.

The China’s assertiveness is seen in its attempt to claim what China considers its rightful place in international politics. From 18th century, up to the first Industrial Revolution, China was the richest country in the world. China has always regarded itself as the Middle Kingdom, and the great civilization based on the concept of “everything under the heavens”, and its relations with other kingdoms as vassals under the ‘tribute system’. There has been a significant move in the attitude of the current Chinese leaders who, with the “Made in China 2025” initiative, have revealed the ambition to make China a global technological power. 

The “China Dream” proposed by President Xi would be the means to achieving this dream, and China in utilising this dream is also seeking to fill the power vacuum left by recent US withdrawal from the international sphere. According to Borell, China’s aim is to transform the international order into a selective multilateral system with Chinese characteristics, in which economic and social rights would take precedence over political and civil rights. He calls the new Chinese foreign policy as the “wolf warrior diplomacy”. In this approach, China’s increasingly important role in the world involves safeguarding its main interests, unambiguously and unconditionally. China’s assertiveness was visible when Australian Prime Minister called for an investigation by the World Health Organization (WHO) into the origin of the widespread of the COVID 19 pandemic, China imposed tariffs of 80.5% on Australian barley.

China has proudly displayed its nuclear arsenal, which is land-, air- and sea-based at the commemoration of its 70th anniversary in 2019, which indicates its technological and military might to enhance its political influence and its expansion. In the last 30 years, China’s military spending rose from just over 1 percent to 14 percent worldwide, and this year it will increase by 6.6 percent, according to figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Several US reports point out that China is now a major challenge to US naval domination and control of the Western Pacific. the famous Chinese strategist Sun Tzu said in The Art of War, the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting, creating situations on the ground that reinforce one’s position and place one’s opponent in a weak position.

As Bowell notes: “In recent years, we have witnessed with concern a rise in human rights abuses in China, increased repression of human rights defenders, journalists and intellectuals, and the violation of basic rights of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.” The deterioration of the situation in Hong Kong is also a clear example of this wave of repression. He has also on behalf of the 27 Member States, recently expressed “the EU’s serious concern over the adoption of the new Hong Kong National Security Act, which is contrary to the principle of “one country, two systems” and to China’s commitments to the international community.

The CEE member countries have responded towards China’s aggression by accepting “its own way” to deal with the emerging threat from China’s influence, which also is known as the Sinatra Doctrine. This doctrine would be based on two pillars: continuing the cooperation with China in regards to address global challenges such as climate change, combating the coronavirus, regional conflicts, while at the same time strengthening the EU’s strategic sovereignty by protecting technological sectors of its economy, which are key to ensuring the necessary autonomy and to promoting international European values and interests. This has also come to be seen by the scholars as a threat and a blowback to China’s growing influence in the Central and Eastern Europe.