This week Joe Biden made good on his campaign promise to work more with allies to pressure China, coordinating with U.S. partners to impose sanctions over alleged human-rights abuses in Xinjiang.
Beijing’s response: Hit back at the allies as hard as possible.
China wasted no time Monday night immediately retaliating with reciprocal sanctions against European Union officials while summoning the bloc’s ambassador to China. Those hit included politicians in a range of countries, one of the main EU bodies formulating foreign policy and Europe’s largest research institute focused on China.
“It was very unfortunate that they went so deep into their toolbox,” said Joerg Wuttke, the Beijing-based president of the European Chamber of Commerce in China and a board member of the Mercator Institute of China Studies, one of the sanctioned entities. Noting that a landmark EU-China investment deal reached in December will likely be put on the back burner, Wuttke said China appeared to be treating the allies harsher than the U.S.
“Size matters,” he said. “They are more cautious about the U.S. and they go full-on after Canada, Australia and the European Union.”
China’s assertive response on the heels of a rare public dust-up with U.S. officials in Alaska last week shows President Xi Jinping’s government is digging in against international criticism on what it considers “internal issues,” from Xinjiang and Hong Kong to Taiwan. Beijing’s stance risks drawing clearer lines between geopolitical blocs than occurred under Donald Trump, whose “America First” policy led to a damaging trade war but also allowed Beijing to make inroads with traditional U.S. allies that felt alienated.
‘Just the Beginning’
“This could be just the beginning,” said Bates Gill, professor of Asia-Pacific Security Studies at Australia’s Macquarie University.
“Both sides, China on one side and other advanced, typically liberal democracies on the other, will be testing the other to see how much pain they can tolerate,” he added. “There is much more decoupling that can happen and we should expect it, especially in areas of high-tech trade, investment, and access to capital markets.”
China this week reached out to two long-time friends, Russia and North Korea, both of which have also been on the receiving end of U.S. sanctions in recent years. On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Wang Yi held talks with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on how to counter the hegemony of the U.S. dollar by promoting the yuan and ruble.
“A few Western countries have staged a show to smear China, but they should know the days that they could interfere in China’s internal affairs by fabricating lies have long passed,” Wang said in the southern Chinese province of Guangxi.
The pushback continued on Tuesday afternoon at the daily Foreign Ministry briefing in Beijing, where spokeswoman Hua Chunying declared Xinjiang a “successful human-rights story” while unleashing an unusually broad attack against the EU, Canada and the U.S., all of which put new sanctions on China this week. On Monday diplomats from more than 20 countries also gathered outside a Beijing court where former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig was being tried on spy charges.
“The coordinated Western measures are a symbolic victory for Joe Biden,” said Nick Marro, a Hong Kong-based global trade analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit. “There seems to be more appetite for a general coordinated approach among Western governments.”
Hua’s critique spanned centuries, running the gamut from their role in the slave trade, imperialism and Nazism to the killing of George Floyd and alleged hoarding of coronavirus vaccines. She dismissed criticism from countries with “small populations” and mocked their coalition as “pseudo-multilateralism.”
“China today is by no means the old China of 120 years ago,” Hua said in an apparent reference to the agreement imperial powers forced China to sign after the Boxer Rebellion. “The U.S., the U.K. and other countries should not dream of making China surrender by exerting pressure. I’m afraid they don’t have the capability to strangle or throttle China.”
Beijing’s top diplomats set the tone for the latest rhetoric during the Alaska meetings with the U.S., when Politburo member Yang Jiechi made extended remarks attacking America’s human-rights record and questioning whether it represented international public opinion. Afterward, Chinese propaganda touted sales of T-shirts and mobile-phone cases emblazoned with phrases used at the talks, including “Stop interfering in China’s internal affairs” and “The U.S. does not have the qualification to speak to us in a condescending manner.”
China’s strictly controlled social media on Tuesday was rife with nationalistic voices supporting the Chinese government’s retaliatory sanctions. Many echoed the official line that Western countries have no shortage of human-rights abuses and argued in support of the government’s policies in Xinjiang — where the United Nations estimates upwards of 1 million mostly ethnic Uyghurs are kept in internment camps.
Still, some voiced concerns for the impact on China’s ties with Europe, particularly the fate of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with the EU. “Is a new Cold War coming?” read one Weibo post that received over 6,000 likes. “Being besieged is not in China’s favor.”
If Brussels believed that Beijing would tolerate whatever the EU imposed just because of the treaty, then it “completely miscalculated,” said Ruan Zongze, vice director of an official think tank dedicated to Xi’s approach to diplomacy.
“They don’t understand today’s China,” he said Wednesday at a briefing in Beijing, adding that he remained confident about ties between his country and the bloc.
China is likely to continue issuing reciprocal sanctions and strongly criticizing coordinated statements even if it derails the EU investment deal, said Natasha Kassam, a former Australian diplomat who worked on human-rights issues in China and is now director of the Lowy Institute think-tank’s public opinion and foreign policy program.
“The logic in Xi Jinping’s China often prevents a rethink of counterproductive policy,” she said. “And Chinese officials appear to be prioritizing a show of strength over global public opinion.”