Chinese foreign affairs Minister Wang Yi speaking at the Munich Security Conference in February. Image: UPI / Alamy Stock Photo

China’s approach to Europe? Anti-diplomacy

Locked in strategic rivalry with the US, China should be launching a counterbalancing charm offensive in European capitals. But for those on the receiving end of its aggressive nationalist posturing, charm is the last word that comes to mind
March 22, 2023

A man in late middle age, known as a relatively subtle diplomat who, unusually for a senior Chinese official, speaks fluent Japanese, Wang Yi has been a familiar figure on the diplomatic circuit for years, including in his former role as foreign minister. In China, that is a relatively junior job in the hierarchy: the incumbent is charged with executing policy made at the senior level of the Communist Party. 

But last year, Wang was promoted to the Party’s 24-member Politburo and now occupies China’s top foreign policy job. When he set out last month for his first trip to Europe in his new role, he had a daunting to-do list: restoring China’s deeply damaged image in Europe; trying to remove the political obstacles to a revival of trade and investment with the EU; convincing European leaders not to align themselves with an increasingly China-hostile United States and persuading the diplomatic hawks of the Munich Security Conference—an audience that could fairly be described as sceptical—of the merits of the “common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security advocated by President Xi Jinping”, as well as of “China’s abiding commitment to peaceful development”. Added to the list was paying a courtesy call to the EU’s illiberal leader, Viktor Orbán—and all this before heading to Moscow in time to mark the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with Vladimir Putin, and to prepare the ground for his boss, Xi Jinping’s, visit to Moscow this week. That visit, 14 months into the brutal war, may well make Wang Yi’s job even harder.  

It will not be an easy task for China to repair relations with Europe, and as the old gag goes, if it wants to get there, it shouldn’t start from here. 

Among the continuing problems are mutual sanctions: the EU imposed sanctions on four officials connected to China’s mass incarceration of the minority Uyghur population in Xinjiang in 2021, and China retaliated by sanctioning, among others, some prominent MEPs and a well-regarded German thinktank that it considered critical of Chinese policy. Unfortunately, China’s counter-sanctions had the entirely predictable effect of sinking a key trade and investment treaty, the CAI, which had been years in negotiation, and which needed the support of the European Parliament—whose members China had sanctioned. 

On 8th February this year, the Chinese ambassador to the EU, Fu Cong, proposed the simultaneous lifting of sanctions, so that both parties could get back to the old-fashioned business of making money. Shortly afterwards, attention turned to the proposed visit to the EU and the UK of Erkin Tuniyaz, the governor of Xinjiang, who is himself under sanction in the United States for his part in the incarceration of up to one million of his fellow Uyghur. Perhaps Beijing hoped the governor’s visit would facilitate a thawing of relations. Instead, it provoked an outcry and—in the UK—calls for the governor’s arrest. Beijing belatedly discovered a scheduling problem and cancelled the trip. 

Today, with serious concerns about the state of China’s economy following Xi Jinping’s controversial Zero Covid policy and the country’s self-imposed three-year isolation, Beijing is engaged in what one China-watcher called a “charm offensive without the charm.” China has proved more adept in recent years at what might be called anti-diplomacy, repeatedly generating the opposite of the responses it hopes for. Wang talked of peace and opportunity, but opinion polling across Europe reveals that China has never been as unpopular with European publics; elite-level policy has moved from friendly to deeply suspicious; and a series of confrontations with individual EU member states has turned previously cooperative partners into determined adversaries.

It was not meant to be like this. 

Ten years ago, China’s relationship with Europe seemed full of promise. Europe’s major companies had set up factories in China with an eye on the vast potential of the Chinese market, trade was booming, and, in the still-European UK, the prime minister and his chancellor were talking excitedly of a golden era of relations. George Osborne visited Xinjiang and talked only of business. 

Beijing, in turn, was talking big about linking China to Europe with new high-speed rail networks, plans shortly to be formalised with the launch in 2013 of the so-called Belt and Road Initiative, a sprawling infrastructure and investment plan. China’s telecoms giant Huawei seemed set to dominate the next phase of Europe’s digital infrastructure development, while the country was buying into major European ports and, in 2012, had launched its own European diplomatic initiative known by the shorthand 16+1, to give diplomatic and political shape to its rapidly expanding relationships. 

Confrontations with EU member states have turned previously cooperative partners into determined adversaries

For a while, 16+1 (which became 17+1 in 2019, when Greece signed up) caused some concern in Brussels. Established as China’s effort to promote cooperation between Beijing and 16 countries of central and eastern Europe, it includes both EU and non-EU members, and was intended to stretch from the Baltic to the Mediterranean while straddling the eastern border of the EU. There were concerns in some European capitals that China would try to advance its own interests at Brussels’s expense, through applying pressure on smaller member states. It was noted that two of its members, Hungary and Greece, had shielded China from EU efforts to criticise its human rights record.

But in central Europe, there was excitement: China seemed to present a huge opportunity and was already embarking on its global investment binge. Its giant state-owned enterprises were looking for new markets, backed by ready finance from Chinese banks, and were offering to build ports, railways, roads and power stations that would, China suggested, transform the economies of the less well-off parts of Europe. After all, China was known for building faster and cheaper than anyone, and after more than two decades of astonishing growth—frequently hitting double digits—its continuing rise seemed inevitable.

Ten years later, after a series of embarrassing defections and a sense of disappointment among many remaining members, the promise of 17+1 is in tatters. Worse, some of the smaller states of Europe have begun to see greater potential in relations with Beijing’s arch enemy, the “renegade province” of Taiwan, than with China itself. The newly elected president of the Czech Republic, Petr Pavel, for example, recently assured Taiwan’s leader Tsai Ing-wen in a phone call that “Taiwan and the Czech Republic share the values of freedom, democracy, and human rights.” They agreed, he said, “on strengthening our partnership.”

Many of the causes of China’s faltering European diplomacy have their roots in Beijing. One memorable piece of advice bequeathed by the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping is known by the shorthand “hide and bide.” China, Deng reasoned, needed space to advance its interests in the world and this would only be available if China did not threaten established powers. To achieve that, he said, China must “hide its capacities and bide its time.” For more than a decade China’s leaders followed that advice, stressing such user-friendly ideas as China’s “peaceful rise” and “win-win” cooperation. 

The arrival of Xi Jinping in power in 2012 brought an abrupt end to hide and bide. As Xi looked out at the world, he saw western liberal democracy in decline and a historic opportunity for China to reclaim what he considered its rightful place in the international order. Xi wanted an assertive China, and nursed a prickly resentment of past injustices. On his watch China became jealous of its dignity, quick to take offence, and big enough to enforce its will. 

Some smaller European states see greater potential in relations with the ‘renegade province’ of Taiwan

The seasoned Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi, Wang’s predecessor in the top job, is remembered in the region for advising smaller Asian neighbours in 2010 that “China is a big country and you are small countries. That is a fact.” When Xi put him charge of China’s foreign policy, this approach crystallised into so-called “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy, an aggressive and frequently undiplomatic style named after a 2017 Chinese action movie in which a heroic Chinese special forces soldier defeats the evil foreign mercenaries sent to kill him. Wolf Warrior diplomacy was to play well at home, where Party supporters thrilled to the idea of China knocking out its enemies. In the EU, however, China’s biggest trading partner and a critical balancing force to a hostile United States, it was a disaster. 

Many of the problems began with incompetence: promised investment that did not arrive, a signature rail line between Belgrade and Budapest that ran over schedule and over budget, and an expensive road to nowhere in Macedonia. More fundamentally, the Covid pandemic was always going to present a geopolitical challenge for China—which was compounded by Beijing’s obstruction of the investigations into its origins, followed by heavy-handed diplomacy over the way masks were delivered to Europe. The revelation of the appalling camps in Xinjiang, the suppression of Hong Kong’s democracy movement, and Xi’s pledge of limitless friendship with Russia just days before Vladimir Putin launched his war in Ukraine combined to create a situation that would challenge the most skillful diplomacy. 

But there were also some weighty considerations on the other side that could have worked to Beijing’s advantage. China was, and remains, a key export market, especially for the EU’s biggest industrial economy, Germany. The German chemical giant BASF, for example, has huge investments in China and Volkswagen makes half its profits in the country.

Besides, the fractious relationship between the EU and the US in the Trump years should have allowed China to consolidate its claim to be a responsible global power, as Xi repeatedly asserted it to be, notably in a speech in Davos in early 2017. Yet by 2019 the European Commission was rewriting its China strategy to include the warning that China was a systemic rival, and member states were growing concerned that Chinese investments could be a security threat as much as an opportunity. 

China repeatedly urged the EU to maintain its “strategic autonomy”—shorthand for independence from Washington—but China’s failure to present itself as Europe’s steady friend and drive a wedge between the US and the EU revealed some important blind spots. With failures mounting, wolf warrior posturing seemed only to compound the problems. Chinese diplomats seemed to have little understanding of the effect of their statements and actions on European publics, and appealing to growing nationalist opinion at home often seemed more important than achieving a good outcome for China abroad. 

As relations cooled in Brussels, they began to fray badly in some of the countries that had joined 17+1 with such enthusiasm. In the Czech Republic things had seemed to start well. The Czech president Miloš Zeman visited China six times between taking office in 2013 and 2019, notably in September 2015, when he paid Xi Jinping the compliment of attending a huge military parade staged to mark the end of the Second World War. Other EU leaders had thought better of it, wary of taking part in an event they suspected was designed to embarrass Japan. Zeman was rewarded with high praise from Xi, who said his presence “showed a spirit of respecting historical fact.” 

A flurry of Chinese investment pledges followed, and Zeman even appointed Ye Jianming, the head of a private Chinese energy and investment conglomerate, CEFC China Energy, as his personal adviser. When, in 2016, Xi returned the favour with a state visit to Prague, there were more announcements, among them proposed CEFC investments in an airline, a beer company, a media company, real estate and a football club. China had become a major player in the Czech Republic. 

Just two years later, it all collapsed: Ye was arrested in China on suspicion of “economic crimes.” Czech partners complained they had not been paid, and although the Chinese government made good some of Ye’s debts, the Czech Republic’s China dream had ended. Beijing responded to January’s conspicuous overtures to Taiwan with a stern warning that it would be unwise to cross any red lines.

The Czech episode was embarrassing, but the experience of another small member state did even more lasting damage to China’s EU relationship. The Baltic republic of Lithuania has a population of 2.8m to China’s 1.4bn. It hardly looked like a fair fight, but in tangling with Lithuania, China discovered that size is not everything: Lithuania was to prove a stubborn and determined adversary. 

The relationship had also begun promisingly: Lithuania was keen on Chinese trade and investment and economic relations grew. But there were obstacles. “China was really only interested in our seaport—we only have one—but because of Russia buying up companies and our national security we have a law on protecting critical infrastructure,” Diana Mickevičienė, the former Lithuanian ambassador to China, tells me. “We spent 10 years making China a priority with a large embassy in Beijing, but we made limited progress.” 

In September 2013, the Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaite met the Dalai Lama, another red line for Beijing. “We spent 14 months in the freezer,” says Mickevičienė, but at least “it was relatively short.” The real trouble began in 2019. Lithuania’s national security review, released on 4th February—coincidentally just before Chinese New Year—was mainly concerned with Russia and Belarus, but also reported an increased level of Chinese spying. Beijing reacted with irritation. Then came an even worse crisis, precipitated by events thousands of miles from the Baltics, in Hong Kong.

Appealing to growing nationalist opinion at home often seemed more important than achieving a good outcome for China abroad

A growing civic moment in Hong Kong was demanding the right to vote that they believed was promised to them when the UK handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997. Tens of thousands of people were taking to the streets to join a movement largely driven by well-educated, technologically sophisticated and determined young people. It was not surprising, therefore, that the idea for the next protest came from a Reddit post that drew attention to the day in August 1989 when two million people across Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia joined hands in a human chain that stretched for 600km. That demonstration marked 50 years since the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that had divided Poland and handed the Baltic states to Russia. Within little more than six months of the protest, Lithuania would be the first of the Baltics to declare its independence from Russia. 

Mickevičienė was just 18 years old when Lithuania became independent. On 13th January the following year, she was on the streets of Vilnius when Russian tanks opened fire on her fellow students in an attempt to force Lithuania back under Russian control. Now, young protesters in Hong Kong were proposing to emulate the Balts on the 30th anniversary of the demonstration known as “the Baltic Way”. 

It was a spectacular success: thousands of people formed a human chain that stretched for thirty miles. One British expat based in Hong Kong tells me: “It’s easy to be cynical about the protests, but that day I really found it moving. There were thousands of people holding hands—and you know that Hong Kong people on the whole don’t like to hold hands with strangers. They were singing songs, and there was an extraordinary atmosphere of hope.” As night fell, one branch of the Hong Kong Way climbed Lion Rock, high above the city, to illuminate the night sky with hundreds of mobile phones.  

In Vilnius that day, Mantas Adomėnas, a Lithuanian politician who boasts a classics doctorate from Cambridge, led a small demonstration in solidarity with Hong Kong. His support of Hong Kong and Taiwan was well known. A few hundred people carrying flags and posters turned out in the capital’s Cathedral Square, but their demonstration took a different turn when around a dozen supporters of Beijing arrived to stage an aggressive counter-demonstration. It was the first time such a thing had happened in Vilnius and Adomėnas responded robustly, accusing the Chinese of being paid to disrupt a peaceful event. The Chinese group seemed to be led by a man named Wang Haonan, described as the leader of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Lithuania, an organisation reportedly founded that same day. 

Scuffles broke out, the police were called, and two Chinese were later charged with disturbing public order. Mickevičienė recalls, “A group of Chinese attacked the Lithuanian demonstration. It was an ugly scene. People were shocked.” 

The scene had been filmed and it was noted that the Chinese ambassador and his military attaché were present in the square. “The embassy had organised it,” claims Mickevičienė. Three days later, the Chinese ambassador was summoned to the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry to receive a diplomatic note. “It was the mildest possible rebuke but the ambassador rejected it—the first time in our experience that a diplomatic note had been rejected,” says Mickevičienė.

With the Chinese embassy refusing to acknowledge participation in the Lithuanian protest, the exchange of messages became public, and things started to go wrong. “We were put on a shelf in an unfriendly box,” says Mickevičienė. Six months later, 200 Lithuanian public intellectuals, activists and politicians signed a letter calling for resistance to China and supporting Taiwan’s diplomatic integration and inclusion in bodies such as the World Health Organisation. 

China began to take revenge. Chinese customs refused to certify Lithuania’s wheat exports on the grounds that the consignment was infected with fungus. “It was a fungus that does not exist in Lithuania,” says Mickevičienė. “That kind of problem is slow and expensive to sort out. You have to fly inspectors around the world, business class, and still the Chinese would not sign the certificate.” 

As ambassador in Beijing, she made getting the ban lifted her top priority, but China’s customs authorities were reluctant to withdraw their claims about the fungus. “They told us to acknowledge the fungus and say that the Chinese officials had destroyed it. We said, we can’t acknowledge a fungus that doesn’t exist [in our country].” The next Chinese suggestion was that she say the fungus came from Latvia and that the Chinese authorities had dealt with it. She called her Latvian counterpart to share the joke.

The bickering continued. China proposed that if the Lithuanian prime minister attended the virtual 17+1 summit due to be held in February 2021, the ban on wheat would be lifted. The invitation was declined, which resulted in a late-night summons to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing for Mickevičienė, along with the Estonian ambassador, to be told that their leaders had insulted China. 

Lithuania had decided that the price of involvement in 17+1 was too high and the deliverables too few. When Lithuania notified Beijing that it was leaving, in the run-up to the February virtual summit, Beijing asked for discretion and continued as though Vilnius was still a member, displaying the Lithuanian flag and inviting businesses to trade fairs. Three months later, Vilnius publicly announced its departure. 

Then, in summer 2021, the Lithuanian government officially welcomed Taiwan to open an office in the capital. The fact of the new office was bad enough from Beijing’s perspective, but the name—the Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania—was an absolute red line for China, which considered it close to recognition of Taiwan’s existence as a country. China recalled its ambassador in protest and a trade war against Lithuania began in earnest: Lithuania’s goods were stranded on the high seas, freight trains from Beijing to other destinations in Europe no longer stopped in Lithuania and exports to China became impossible after the name “Lithuania” was removed from the Chinese customs database, which meant that documentation returned an error message. Pressure mounted both at home and in some other European capitals for Lithuania to give in. 

But China had overreached. Lithuania’s EU neighbours found that goods containing parts made in Lithuania were also facing new obstacles at Chinese customs, and when protests had no effect, the EU began the lengthy process of taking a case against China to the World Trade Organisation. The Lithuanian government dug its heels in, and when the Taiwan office finally opened in November 2021, China announced that diplomatic relations with Lithuania were downgraded to the lower charge d’affaires level.

The embassy’s name was immediately changed on Chinese maps,  and a consular officer who was trying to send his baggage home found it refused unless he applied for permission under the new name. The embassy staff were also told to hand in their credentials and re-apply under the new name. Without credentials, they would lose diplomatic protection: they decided to evacuate the embassy instead. China’s behaviour prompted allegations that it was failing to comply with the terms of the Vienna Convention. Mickevičienė served out the rest of her ambassadorial term remotely, in Vilnius.

The net result of China’s heavy-handed response was that Lithuania and Taiwan established a closer relationship and Taiwan pledged to invest so heavily in the Baltic state that other small EU members began to take an interest in the possibilities of closer relations with Taipei. Estonia and Latvia also left China’s grouping, bringing it down to 14+1—a number that, with the recent change of government in the Czech Republic, may yet become 13+1. China’s support for Russia after the invasion of Ukraine has surely accelerated the process of disenchantment. 

Wang Yi, in his previous role as foreign minister, was witness to the wreckage of China’s European relationships. It remains to be seen whether China’s reserves of charm, and the continuing attraction of its 1.4bn consumers, are enough to repair the damage.