The EU’s Mixed Messages On China: Sanctions, Gunboat Diplomacy, and a Desire For Deeper Economic Relations

As China’s transgressions have consumed more headlines and attention on the international stage, Europe’s hands are tied somewhat.  With the close economic relationship between Beijing and the EU, applying major economic sanctions is next to impossible without attracting significant blowback. The Union appears to have found a compromise, however.

Today, EU leaders have agreed to levy limited sanctions on China over its human rights abuses. The measures will be formally agreed upon and set later in March when EU foreign ministers meet. These sanctions will be the first imposed on Chinese officials since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. They will include travel bans and asset freezes, but not actions that will be felt by the entire Chinese economy. And this is where the problem is for Europe. Sanctions are a form of punishment, applied to drive home a point and entice a nation-state to change its position on a particular issue. Weak sanctions like these, however, generally encourage continued noncompliance. When it comes to China, Europe consistently wants to have its cake and eat it too. This means confronting China on human rights violations and other issues while simultaneously pursuing deeper economic ties with Beijing.   

In the last six months, considerable backlash has taken shape in Europe against China concerning its crackdown in Hong Kong, as well as the human rights violations continuing to take place in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. China’s aggressive posture in the South China Sea has also begun raising eyebrows across the Continent. There is a mixture of alarm and frustration in the capitals of EU nations not only over Beijing’s actions recently, but also concerning the lack of a cohesive EU policy concerning the People’s Republic of China.  Whereas China is pressing forward with a strategy centered on driving a wedge between Europe and the United States, the EU has failed to create a strategy to counter that. Instead, Brussels has dithered, unable or unwilling to place an appropriate title upon China. Instead, it has chosen a variety of more generic labels to describe China. Economic competitor and systemic rival are but two.

In the midst of the mixed messages doled out by the EU, Germany, and Great Britain are planning naval deployments to the Western Pacific later in the year while France has already sent two warships to the region in what can realistically be described as modern-day gunboat diplomacy. In February, a French frigate conducted a joint naval exercise with US and Japanese forces off the coast of Japan. Also last month, France revealed it had sent an attack submarine to patrol the South China Sea. The deployment, and public admittance of it by Paris, serves as a clear warning to China that the European powers will be a part of the naval calculus should China provoke a confrontation in the South China Sea or elsewhere in the Western Pacific in the coming months and years.

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