Why China gave up on being liked by Europe
For a long time, China was obsessed with gaining soft power. But today, “being liked” by Europeans no longer seems to be a key strategic goal in Beijing. Has China given up on Europe as a possible partner? Clingendael research fellow Ties Dams wonders how Europe can respond to China’s increasing coercive power.
Waiting for John le Carré’s posthumous last novel to fall on my doormat, I am passing the time by reading his breakthrough, The spy who came in from the cold (1963).
For Le Carré, the geopolitical was personal. Since Le Carré is arguably the defining literary author on the Cold War – a war he fought as an intelligence officer himself – a book like The spy should be read as an argument for understanding geopolitical conflict through the lens of human and social psychology.
The Cold War, in Le Carré’s telling of it, is the ultimate consequence of that very human tendency to see in others reflected what we fear most. Ironically, if two parties share this weakness, fear becomes reality as either side acts accordingly, finding in one another an enemy confirmed. In this way, a conflict like the Cold War consists ultimately of people creating the enemies they fear, answering their enemies’ aggression in kind, thus becoming more like them.
I wonder: is a new Cold War inevitable?
The bleak, inescapable psychology of animosity in Le Carré’s The spy still resonates today. Three decades after the old Cold War ended, I fear China and the United States are about to wage a new one.1 I wonder: is a new Cold War inevitable? Is Europe doomed to become a theatre for two opposing systems vying for dominance by covert means?
Worryingly, China’s policies answer a firm yes on both counts, as a recent French military study suggests. In a report roughly the size of three Le Carré-novels, the authors of the Institut de Recherche Stratégique de l'Ecole Militaire (IRSEM) claim that China is ramping up its already considerable machinery of covert influence, including – but not exclusively – in Europe.2
Specifically, they assert that China’s strategy has changed. From overt tactics aimed at attempting to be liked or even admired, it increasingly opts for measures of covert influence, aimed at projecting direct or indirect coercive power. In this transformation, China is increasingly taking cues from Russia, the authors argue.
China was for a long time obsessed with gaining soft power
This may sound surprising, as for the past decade or so, Chinese and Russian influence strategies looked markedly different. First of all, Russia’s and China’s strategic horizons lay elsewhere. Russia’s strategy has mainly been – and still primarily is – to assert an image of power in its neighbouring regions, reacting to what it sees as security threats posed by NATO and the EU. China’s strategy was to gain legitimacy within and beyond the international institutional order for its distinctive system of development by projecting a positive, attractive image of itself and, increasingly, the world order it is helping to shape.
Second of all, China and Russia have used different tactics. Russia has tried to mask a crumbling economy by projecting the image of a superpower worthy of being feared. China, on the contrary, has for decades attempted to prevent the world from fearing its immense economic rise by selling its culture as harmonious, its governance as pragmatic and its geopolitics as peaceful. Russia has grown into a superpower of disinformation, weaponising hacker farms and botnets to sow discord; China was for a long time obsessed with gaining soft power, by setting up Confucius Institutes, media channels and culture festivals in just about every country in the world.
About three years ago, China started singing to a different tune, as the IRSEM report quite rightly takes note of. European electorates are increasingly fearful of China; this tells China that being liked by Europeans is not a viable strategic goal anymore.3 If we are doomed to be feared, let us make the most of it, the thought seems to be.
A report by the European Thinktank Network on China (ETNC) on China’s soft power in Europe that brings together in-depth analyses from seventeen European countries, concludes: “Regardless of the many ways in which China has tried to project its soft power in Europe over the past decade, the impact of these attempts seems to be negligible compared to other factors. These include China’s domestic political set-up, COVID-19 and Sino-US rivalry. […] China is increasingly communicating that it prefers to be respected, if not feared, rather than liked. Put differently, Beijing today seems less interested in its appeal than in gaining coercive power.”4
The IRSEM report does an impressive job of showing how this change of heart is transforming China’s global networks of covert influence. It notices that China is undergoing a “Russianization”2 of its influence tactics, adding to its long-standing apparatus for projecting soft power through a wide variety of dark arts, such as disinformation campaigns, cyber-attacks and an increased appetite for covert political interference. The report argues wisely that China has not forgotten its positive agenda: China is big enough to act globally and diversify its tactics.
The subjects of the IRSEM report’s case studies will not surprise anyone. Hong Kong and Taiwan feature prominently in it, and indeed, both the massive propaganda and disinformation campaigns aimed at these localities, as well as the extensive networks of bought political influence Beijing keeps in both places, are well reported upon. The one European case – about Sweden – is all but new, although thoroughly laid out in this report.
Indeed, the problem with research into this topic is the difficulty of rising above the level of building an inventory of recent incidents. The incidents, however, are not the point. Neither is the breath-taking scope of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) global networks of covert influence – it has been building these since at least the fifties and some of them even before that.
Even though the escalation of animosity between Sweden and China was sparked by an incident – the case of Gui Minhai, a Swedish-Chinese bookseller who has been sentenced in China for “illegally providing intelligence overseas”5 - it is driven by more fundamental factors that Sweden shares with much of the rest of Europe. Opinion polls across European countries, for instance, show that electoral animosity versus China is rising very quickly.
China may have decided that Europe is a partner already lost
Even in Central and Eastern Europe, former relatively China-friendly governments are turning hawkish as we speak: the recent elections in the Czech Republic, for example, are expected to lead to a government that is outspokenly anti-China. Even Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is a beleaguered man these days, due to his close ties with both Moscow and Beijing.
The point, then, is that China may have decided that Europe is a partner already lost; therefore, it has resigned to become the enemy we fear, as Russia did before. The US also seem to have reached this conclusion. Despite the fact that Joe Biden negated China’s accusation that it is seeking a ‘new Cold War’,6 his actions seem to be telling a different story. This is shown by pursuing China’s financial and technological decoupling, by setting up the QUAD and AUKUS alliances, and by reorienting its intelligence community towards China.7
Interestingly, polls suggest most Europeans believe a new Cold War between the transatlantic allies and a Moscow-Beijing axis is under way.8 It already appears as a fact of history, rather than the ultimate consequence of that very human tendency to see in others what we fear most – and of the choice to act on that fear.
China’s strategy demands a striking answer; the IRSEM report rightfully leads the reader to that conclusion, even though it does not prescribe it. Another conclusion the IRSEM report points to, but does not prescribe, is that China’s networks of influence reflect its paranoia: monstrous in scale and therefore, rather difficult to handle effectively. More effort should go into creating the firm intelligence that helps European countries distinguish between urgent security threats, long-term strategic risks and perhaps malevolent but ineffective Chinese tactics of influence.
European countries must double down on counterespionage, organise large scale disinformation responses, meet China’s narratives with European responses in kind, upgrade its cyber defences and demand greater transparency into financial ties to China.9 Governments ought to very specifically define what technologies – present or future – it must protect.
Must we resign ourselves to answering aggression with aggression, fear with fear?
In the midst of geopolitical developments that European countries cannot or will not help shape, we can and must fill these gaps in our defence ourselves. Given the speed with which China advances its Cold War tactics on the European continent, these are choices we can and must make.
It is tempting to view the advent of a new Cold War as a grandmaster views a chessboard: rationally, obsessed by the opponent and faced with a set game. The IRSEM report meaningfully sharpens the grandmaster’s view.
If six decades of Le Carry’s literary genius have taught us anything, it is that that is only half the story. Sometimes, the eyes of a novelist help us asking different questions. Must we resign ourselves to answering aggression with aggression, fear with fear? Is the new Cold War a storyline set in stone, or can we escape the dramatic fate depicted in the myth of Sisyphus?
- 1‘CIA beefs up China focus with new mission centre’, Financial Times, October 2021.
- 2 a b Paul Charon & Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer, ‘Les opérations d'influence chinoises – Un moment machiavélien’, IRSEM, Ministère des Armées, October 2021.
- 3Frans-Paul van der Putten, Christopher Houtkamp & Monika Sie Dhian Ho, ‘Dutch views of China’, Clingendael Institute, 6 March 2021.
- 4Ties Dams, Xiaoxue Martin & Vera Kranenburg, ‘China’s Soft Power in Europe’, European Think-tank Network on China, April 2021.
- 5'Gui Minhai: Hong Kong bookseller gets 10 years jail', BBC News, 25 February 2020.
- 6Joe Biden, ‘President Biden: 'We are not seeking a new cold war'’, Sky News, 21 September 2021.
- 7Alex Marquardt, ‘CIA will focus on China with new mission center’, CNN, 7 October 2021.
- 8Ivan Krastev & Mark Leonard, ‘What Europeans think about the US-China Cold War’, European Council on Foreign Relations, 22 September 2021.
- 9Ties Dams & Monika Sie Dhian Ho, ‘Will the European hero please stand up?’, Clingendael Institute, 24 March 2021.
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