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Europe’s Response to China’s Military Strategies and Challenges

Europe’s Response to China’s Military Strategies and Challenges
 François Godement
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - U.S. and Asia

''China’s mix of rising capacities, assertive and even aggressive behavior, and ambiguous or defensive pronouncements present special difficulties for Europeans'': our Senior Advisor for Asia, François Godement takes stock of China’s military strategies and lists seven principles or possible modalities for a European response. This paper derives in part from François Godement’s participation in a session titled "China's military build-up", organized on June 16 2021, by the European Parliament Subcommittee on Security and Defence, in association with the European Parliament Delegation for relations with the People’s Republic of China. 

Europe faces a dilemma in confronting China’s challenges, from human rights to China’s military aggressivity and its mobilizational state economy. The challenge is greater in the long term than Russia’s immediate actions in our region. 

Were the Europeans to agree on numerous declarative pushbacks against China’s breaches of international law - whether it is South China Sea, border issues with India, a breach of the 1984 Sino-British treaty on Hong Kong’s or actions against ethnic and religious minorities - those pushbacks are likely to remain mostly declarative. The sanction route is more difficult to follow against a first-class economic power with which we have many entangled interests. By contrast, Russia’s present and future economic clout is doubtful, to say the least. And China’s present path has largely discarded ambiguity.

The post-2009 arrival of a stronger brand of nationalism in China, and the accumulation of power at the apex of the CCP by Xi Jinping after 2012 already implied a growing sense of systemic conflict with democracy. His immediate predecessors had been more restrained in this direction. 

But even so, no one predicted the return to totalitarianism, the ideological mass campaigns, the reversal of policies towards minorities up to the persecution of ethnic groups and the halt to the market reform process that is an unavoidable consequence of these new political realities - of the "new normal", as many call it. Some see this as a perhaps temporary return to Cultural Revolution politics. But China’s party-state has gigantic technological and financial means at its disposal, and that means its leverage has expanded, including abroad.

By comparison, the rise of China’s military capacities and the outward spreading of the PLA wings are no surprise. They stand in continuity with the policies enacted under Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s, when China’s navy was the first PLA arm to be boosted. The aim was to recover what China viewed as its territory, and to begin balancing other military powers in its maritime neighborhood. Moreover, there is also a continuum of yearly rising defense expenditures. Today, it is futile to debate whether these yearly increases proceed faster than the GDP growth rate, since in any case, the rise of both in absolute terms dwarfs that of every other nation. While one country’s economic progress does not necessarily come at the expense of another, such a strong rise in military expenditures necessarily reflects a changing balance of power. China’s defense budget is higher than that of all Asian countries combined. It comes second only to the US - with a very different spending structure that favors equipment over salary costs.

While one country’s economic progress does not necessarily come at the expense of another, such a strong rise in military expenditures necessarily reflects a changing balance of power.

Military hardware and developments are one thing. Displayed intentions and actions are another. Whereas the increase in capacities has been continuous for at least 32 years, strategic intentions have varied - or they have exited Deng Xiaoping’s era of calculated ambiguity, well expressed by the formula translated as "hide your capacities and bide your time". Yet, some characteristics have endured. They can be described as follows: challenge and intimidate, but do not cross the red line of an escalating conflict; stay in control of the tension, describe your own position as merely reactive and operate within a grey zone, using in part paramilitary forces. This is an incremental strategy rather than a great leap one - for the time being.

Over time, China pushes the envelope further, therefore unveiling strategic intentions. Some observers long wanted to believe that China did not claim the entire South China Sea within the so-called Nine-Dash Line (critics called this the "doughnut hole theory"). In practice, it is very difficult to identify what China does not claim there. Yet, in a South and East China Seas context, where some other countries have occasionally had skirmishes leading to some casualties, the only lethal incidents that China has been engaged in are with Vietnam - a socialist brother which has the misfortune of being a neighbor and is not covered by an alliance. It is only last year, in Ladakh, that we have seen a lethal initiative by the PLA against Indian forces, and even that has been conducted without firing guns, but with knives and other assorted means. It is perhaps no accident either that India is not a member of any formal alliance.

The apparent gap between the increased PLA potential and deployment and its avoidance of armed conflict is often highlighted by China as a virtue, and in contrast with an interventionist America: "we will not fire the first shot"; "we do not interfere in other people’s affairs". 

Over decades, there was little linkage between China’s strategic claims and challenges, and its economic ties to the outside world. Only on "core interests" (Taiwan, Tibet and interference over human rights at the time) did China openly link politics and economics. And over the case of Taiwan, effective economic links had been established with the party that used to be the CCP’s challenger to legitimacy. 

All of the above have given rise to some complacency among China’s main partners, and a prevalent view that the Indo-Pacific was perhaps the field of competition between China and the United States. Business could go on as usual, especially for other countries or regions that felt they had no stake in a struggle for power. 

That perception is outdated today. And it is not Donald Trump, or a sudden rise of hawks in other countries, or a belated attempt by the United States to stop China’s economic rise that have made it obsolete. It is China’s own choice. 

Intentions and their manifestations have changed under Xi Jinping. In 2013, admiral Zhang Zhaozhong said China was using a "cabbage strategy" to reclaim Flipino islets, surrounding these with layers of hybrid military and auxiliary forces. Recently, the French Navy chief of staff expanded the notion, terming it "an asphyxiating strategy" across the Indo-Pacific. He described in very concrete terms how that applies to the French navy in the same region.

China’s long arm now extends to the Strait of Hormuz, and to a frequent and significant presence in the Mediterranean.

The PLAN’s (People Liberation’s Army Navy) posture is also contradictory: while China’s doctrine is that innocent passage requires previous declaration, China’s PLAN engages in non-declared passage in other zones. 

China’s long arm now extends to the Strait of Hormuz, and to a frequent and significant presence in the Mediterranean. Although part of the motivation for port acquisition or management is economic, there is no doubt that, in some cases, this will also facilitate port calls by the PLAN or even the intention of basing rights in the future.

In Europe, what was a studied ambiguity regarding some of Russia’s actions (from Abkhazia and Ossetia to Crimea and Donbass) is turning into opportunistic collusion on Belarus - where indeed China has established a logistical and economic foothold, and which is now its main rail connection to the EU. 

True, China’s behavior in the Indo-Pacific as of now does not apply to other regions of the globe. Elsewhere, the PLA flies its flag or occasionally maneuvers with de facto political allies. China also displays another face, via contributions to multinational peace-keeping, and formal visits and exchange of niceties with countries that occasionally choose to turn a blind eye on China’s behavior in its own region.

We should not be fooled by these two tactics: the slow motion asphyxiation of others in order to impose new "rules" against international law, and the multilateral veneer of China’s international strategy.

But China’s mix of rising capacities, assertive and even aggressive behavior and ambiguous or defensive pronouncements present special difficulties for Europeans.

We should not be fooled by these two tactics: the slow motion asphyxiation of others in order to impose new "rules" against international law, and the multilateral veneer of China’s international strategy.

Whatever the meaning and end goal of a "strategic autonomy" for Europe, whatever the level of deployment and preventive presence of individual member states in the Indo-Pacific, the European Union and/or its Member States do not possess the military capacities that could challenge China’s actions - save at the nuclear level for one Member State and for another European nation, and that is the least desirable option of all. Nor do all member states have a direct and tangible stake in the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific. But China is our first commercial partner. That leads to an economic interdependence which, in spite of China’s huge trade surplus, works to its advantage. 

China is a centralized and politicized actor, whereas the EU takes more time to reach consensus and allows more diverse interests to express themselves.

In the face of these difficulties, it has been tempting to compartmentalize the strategic competition and systemic conflict with China, in order to keep economic exchanges and cooperation going. It is also easy to stand back from other Asian partners and the United States, leaving the "heavy lifting" to others and sticking to declaratory stances or symbolic actions. The sanctions adopted so far against some mid-level PRC individuals belong to that category. So far, that catalogue of sanctions has kept a division between political and economic issues at the public level. Opinion campaigns - for instance, on sourcing from Xinjiang - are different, but they are not a Member State or EU stance so far.

The defects in this posture are at least three-fold:

  1. It is China which now links economics with politics, threatening many of its partners over trade, taking economic sanctions in Hong Kong over pretexts of national security, instigating from the top boycotts of certain European firms
  2. Given Europe’s limited military leverage and reluctance towards economic sanctions, China has been able to discount statements regarding its breaches of international law. Tellingly, the only international arbitration which it respects is the WTO’s, even if China is largely reluctant to a significant reform of the organization
  3. Emphasizing "strategic autonomy" in a region where our tools so far are limited, and insisting on specific European interests vs. transatlantic partnership, weakens both the EU and the United States. China is well aware of these divisions and tirelessly works to enlarge them. But China does not reward those who stand apart from a strategic consensus, instead probing their weaknesses to enlarge its own influence. The ongoing story of a huge Chinese university campus in Budapest, after Hungary’s various breaks from a European consensus, is a good example of that proactive push. Various disappointments in other Member States - and in the United Kingdom - are also telling. The reason for this is simple: as a Leninist state, China believes that democracy is fickle and under influence. It trusts no partner and no one individual. Keeping promises is not part of the equation.

In fact, sitting still now ensures that, barring unforeseen events, China’s influence and practices will only grow and will increasingly concern our own regional environment, if this is not already the case. 

This is of course not a prediction for the indefinite future: China’s history moves in cycles, its society and political culture will bounce back. A totalitarian system largely led by one man is vulnerable over time. But predicting that moment is impossible.

In the face of these difficulties, some principles and possible modalities for Europe’s response can be described as follows:

  • The unanimity requirement in EU Foreign Policy and Security is dangerous, given China’s leverage on Member States. If the rule cannot be changed at the EU level, a transitional and informal practice of unanimity - 1, or -2, should be enacted for statements and decisions. This does weaken overall institutional cohesion but is still preferable to an ASEAN-like paralysis.
  • In the Indo-Pacific, where there are by far not enough EU or European military assets, symbolic support and concrete coordination with the United States remain essential. Because this does not imply automatic alignment, these actions should be met by increased communication and dialogue, including on military issues, from the United States.
  • In third areas (neither EU nor Indo-Pacific), Europeans should increase their role as a military and security provider. This is not only about weapons - training the military is an aspect that the PLA has also doubled down on. Africa today, Latin America tomorrow, are regions where a struggle for influence is underway.
  • Our unconditional support for principles of international law and values should be matched with a strong dialogue, in particular in the Indo-Pacific, to strengthen common interpretations of these values and principles. On freedom of navigation, including EEZs, not all regional states align with the prevailing interpretation. Narrowing those differences would be useful. Another difficult subject is that of human rights and their scope. We should avoid the situation where differences of interpretation help China to garner allies of circumstance in key international votes. This is also important for the European Parliament.
  • The EU - if it reaches something approaching a consensus - is stronger in non-military responses: technology, economy and aid policies. This is where the unity of action with other like-minded partners is essential. Investment screening is not sufficiently operational without an international exchange of information and joint decisions. Given China’s hybrid civil-military economy, technology denial in critical areas has become an important issue. The competition over digital platforms will be waged largely in third markets: EU norm-making and negotiation should proceed from that reality. China is so aware of this that, in spite of its Great Firewall, it is preparing data protection laws that in some respects mimic the EU’s GDPR. However, the loopholes in China’s draft are huge, and ultimately will be defined by the state alone. The EU’s aid policies are commendable in size, and are being reoriented through an Indo-Pacific strategy. But they must be further strategized, with as much coordination as possible with the United States and Japan.
  • Tackling economic issues in this context means taking on the question of economic decoupling. Let’s face it: China sought foreign investors and companies for the capital, but even more and increasingly for the innovation and technology that they bring. Denying technology means diminishing the attractiveness of foreign capital for China. Even apart from the risks of sanctions and counter sanctions, this is not an attractive proposition for foreign firms that have a short term profit horizon and depend on the China market. But the writing is on the wall. China has constantly accelerated its drive for indigenous innovation and self-sufficiency over the last decade, while seeking gains in foreign market share. The last year and a half further testifies to this trend. Overall, encouraging China’s mercantilism feeds the military-industrial complex of the country. Since we cannot directly counter it alone, we must both seek allies and cap our attraction to China’s sellers. Reinforcing our tech export controls is essential for national security reasons, but we need not deny that it is also another tool that can be used against China’s many strategies for technology acquisition.
  • Weaknesses in the international supply chain, whether they have a geopolitical or industrial reason, or even stem from a natural event, have come to the fore. The issue of trust has become paramount - and as we have witnessed over vaccines, it is not easily ensured. The answer to these weaknesses is not a simple yes or no. But several reports have described the key vulnerabilities of the European economies to external suppliers - and China is prominent among these. Reducing those weaknesses is a long-term objective.

Relations with China have become a struggle of will, which the Chinese leader feels he will win over democracies: this is the reason why China has escalated over sanctions and is promulgating open-ended legislation to this effect. China also has ideological and tactical allies - a coalition where no one possesses the economic clout of China. Europeans are often divided on whether Russia or China are the principal challengers and threats to our values and interests. Russia appears more proximate and immediate, while China is more long term and over the horizon. We find the same short-term/long-term divide between the China interests of many companies and public interest (which in fact includes the longer term interest of these companies). Overcoming these divides is crucial.

On the strictly military response, clearly not the EU’s forte, strengthening EU and Member State contributions is important, including for the signal it gives our partners in the Indo-Pacific, and to China itself. Reducing the problems to a power contest between China and the United States is an encouragement to China’s aggressivity. That the European Union has less geopolitical weight than it should does not mean that it should stay on the sidelines - or let itself be sidelined. 




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