In thirty years, the world has changed. The Cold War ended with the on-the-go unswerving alliance between the USA and Europe, with their prevailing paragon of self-government and with China only starting to open up its economy.
Political prophecies at that time conveyed credulous anticipations for lasting peace, solid economic development and a thriving free political system. Instead, the world experienced a number of conventional conflicts and wars, severe economic crisis and shifting proven hubs of power and stability.
Over that period, China boosted its economy, was admitted cheaply into the World Trade Organization (WTPO) and embarked on a major infiltration strategy worldwide that materialized most clearly in the New Silk Road and Belt initiatives.
As this being done, now the objective of China is to develop all the technological and military characteristics that would correspond to its economic power and wealth. And at the same time, the primary objective of Europe is to remain an attractive free market and preferential tourist destination. That discrepancy in the respective goals is reversing.
At present, China is openly asserting its new global ambitions, while the European Union, still deeply mired in the Brexit crisis, is irreversibly dropping its wide-reaching influence and is equally facing the risk of dismantling and disappearance in less than 10 years.
Hence, China recently signed the world’s largest trade deal with Asia-Pacific countries, called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, whereas the European Union is struggling to reach an agreement on Brexit, and formalize the loss of one of its most influential members.
It is therefore wrong to believe that the COVID-19 pandemic marked an inflection point in the European policy towards China. As the virus continues to destroy economies and destinies throughout the world, its geopolitical aftershocks remain unpredictable.
The COVID-19 crisis accentuated the absenteeism of Europe from the global stage dominated by the rivalry between the United States and China. But this absence from the world affairs was predictable and the European leaders have full responsibility for it.
While the US government, under President Trump, took radical measures to contain Chinese’s expansionism, such as the 25% tariff imposed on imports from China, and the neutralizing of China’s abusive practices of forced transfer of technology and theft of intellectual property, Europe preferred to adopt a different, far more conciliatory approach. The European leaders, aware of their ever-increasing economic dependency, remained gently toothless towards China.
For years, Europe considered it smarter to stay on the sidelines of the US versus China conflict. In their typical hypocrisy, European leaders kept stressing on one hand their sustained commitment to the transatlantic alliance, and on the other eagerly persisted to court Chinese communist money and investments. That led to the critical deviations from the core democratic principles and human values defended by the Europeans for more than a century.
For instance, the European Union shamefully failed to support freedom in Hong Kong, where the Chinese government imposed new national security laws eradicating the liberties enjoyed until then by residents under the territory’s semi-autonomous status.
Despite calls from activists for EU sanctions on Chinese politicians in response, the European leaders preferred to downplay the Chinese forcing into submission of Hong Kong and simply expressed their “grave concern” over the orchestrated by Beijing massacre of democracy and civil society.
Another significant example echoing the pathetic political stupor of the EU in dealing with China was observed at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The leak of an internal email within the EU’s External Action Service, revealed that its officials keenly edited a report on COVID-19 disinformation by removing criticism of China and only weeks later, the EU’s ambassador in Beijing capitulated to pressure from the Chinese government to remove references to the coronavirus’ Chinese origin. That episode shed full light on Europe’s hyper-dependence and how easy it was to make EU leadership grovel to China in the most demeaning way.
Among the numerous examples of Europe giving up its industry to China, the outsourcing and delocalizing of the pharmaceutical production deserves a special attention in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. For decades, the European big pharmaceutical companies, in their race for profit, preferred to close down the facilities fabricating locally the necessary active pharmaceutical ingredients (API – the part of the drug that produce its therapeutic effects), and caved to the opportunity of having China producing and massive supplying API on the cheap. For Europe, that was decisive in losing control over its sanitary sovereignty.
Consequently, in 2019, the Chinese drugs production reached 9.5 million tons, of which 1.9 million were sold in Europe. Its exports have grown at an average annual rate of 3.8% in recent years, and now stand at around US$ 30 billion. This highly profitable dynamic is set to last out: patented medicines estimated at some 180 billion US$ are on the verge of moving into the public domain between 2021 and 2024.
These episodes strikingly illustrate the EU’s willingness to prioritize narrow economic interests over its foundational values of freedom, human rights and self-government.
As of 2020, China is the EU’s second-largest trading partner, and many of its member states will do their utmost to avoid jeopardizing this relationship at any cost. A high EU official acknowledged when commenting on the Hong Kong crisis: “Sanctions are not on the table, and will never be, our relations with the Chinese are simply too important.”
Also, the European leaders observed how strongly China retaliated by placing tariffs on Australian barley and suspending imports of Australian processed meat following Australia’s call for investigation into coronavirus origin. These industries are heavily dependent on exporting to China, and as a result Australia faces serious economic damages.
In order to avoid a similar fate, most of the European leaders believe that the EU must stay quiet and refrain from criticizing the Chinese government whatever that may cost to the image and the democratic credibility of Europe.
Only recently, in November 2020, France, which is usually known for its political system featuring vibrant democratic processes and strong protections for civil liberties and political rights, unproblematically entombed those valuable principles and ceded to the conditions set out by China for bargaining the reelection of the French Director General of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay.
The French have properly learnt their lesson in June 2019, when Qu Dongyu, the vice-Minister of agriculture of China won in the first round, with 108 votes, the election for a four-year term as head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The candidate of France and the European Union, Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle, long presented as the favorite, obtained the ridiculous 71 votes.
In order to avoid a similar humiliation at UNESCO, with a potential Chinese candidacy in 2021 that would undoubtedly defeat the current Director General, the French Ministry of Foreign affairs conceded to the Chinese demands summarized as follows by a senior diplomat in New York:
But the most aberrant request formulated by China was to have the French working behind the scenes, using their influence and permanent UN Security Council seat towards shattering the recognition of Taiwan by at least some of the following 14 countries: Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Paraguay, Nicaragua, Belize, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and The Grenadines, Marshall Islands, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Palau, Tuvalu, Nauru, Vatican City.
Obviously, without a radical break, the EU will remain beholden to Chinese economic pressure for the foreseeable future. Europeans must reduce reliance on China and go for alternative suppliers in the critical technology and healthcare sectors. There is also a need for tougher provisions in the EU-China investment agreements.
Taking bold steps would allow the EU to stand up for its core political values and to find a way for achieving both economic wealth and independence from Chinese influence. A failure in taking such steps will sound the death knell for the European prosperity.
For the first time in their history, the European leaders are facing a non-Western globalization, in which Europe will no longer decide on anything. Even more dramatic for the Europeans is their taste for procrastination in investing and developing new technologies and artificial intelligences (plural is on purpose), which, in easy anticipation, will lead in less than 20 years to the cyber-colonialism over Europe by the emerging technological superpowers.
Seventy-five years after the end of the Second World War, Europe is still a military dwarf, unable to finance and guarantee its own security, relying on the USA for doing so. Moving at a snail’s pace on all challenging contemporary fronts in a world dominated by speed, Europe is unwisely imagining that the other states will hang on or get inspiration from the old continent.
It is hard for European leaders and even more for European peoples to believe that Europe is no longer a major player, that historical glory is far behind and that Europe is not anymore at the heart of world’s policy. The EU has difficulty to accept that its future will never be as bright as its past; that its colossal ego will hardly match ever its mini-power role in the context of the Sino-American competition.
Hens simply fade away when elephants are fighting.