China is no friend of democracy, as the situation in Hong Kong shows, and the EU must act accordingly.
Nobody knows exactly how, or when, the Hong Kong protests will end. As 1.7 million demonstrators joined a peaceful rally last Sunday, marking the 11th week of the mass protests, there are few indications that enthusiasm is petering out. Rather, the situation appears to be becoming more violent (though not the latest protests) and tense as each week progresses. It might culminate in either the protestors getting what they want (more political autonomy from mainland China) or them being forcibly put down, likely by mainland Chinese forces. Either that, or things could go back to as they were before the protests began in June, though with some of minor tweaks recently promised by Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive.
So far, the EU has been relatively quiet on the Hong Kong question – unlike America, which has dithered over how to respond, changing its message almost on a weekly basis, which has been little help to the protestors nor Beijing. In July, the European Parliament adopted a motion calling on the Hong Kong government to formally drop the extradition bill, which was the cause of the protests in the first place, and called on the EEAS to “halt all export of crowd control equipment and ‘non-lethal’ weaponry”.
Then, little else was heard from the EU until August 17, when Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, issued a statement along with the Canadian Foreign Ministry. “Fundamental freedoms, including the right of peaceful assembly,” she said, “and Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy under the ‘one country, two systems’ principle, are enshrined in the Basic Law and international agreements and must continue to be upheld.” She also rebuked the “rising number of unacceptable violent incidents,” which increased the “risks of further violence and instability,” she said, while adding that “it is crucial that restraint be exercised, violence rejected, and urgent steps taken to de-escalate the situation.”
It was as tame as a statement could have been (short of simply parroting Beijing’s line) yet the Chinese mission to the EU responded with a flurry shortly after Mogherini’s statement. “We once again urge the EU side,” it stated, “to observe international law and the basic norms governing international relations, respect China’s sovereignty in good faith, and immediately stop meddling in Hong Kong affairs and China’s internal affairs.”
Short of statements, however, there isn’t much the EU can actually do to influence the situation. Indeed, on one level, it is correct to remain as passive as possible. Beijing is keen to portray the protestors as foreign agents, and the pro-democracy movement as a foreign imposition. Brussels won’t want allegations that it is part of a so-called “black hand” of foreign influencers in Hong Kong, and neither will the protestors won’t want their struggle to be described as pro-Western, as Beijing has attempted to portray them. So, for now, the EU is right to remain as silent as possible, not only for itself, but also for the protestors, though has drawn attention to the 1984 agreement.
But if the worst situation arises and mainland Chinese forces are deployed onto the streets of Hong Kong, the EU cannot do anything. Brussels and Washington will almost certainly not consider a military option. Sanctions are more probable than force, but still unlikely – their application would likely be based on how forceful Chinese For now, however, Brussels should reflect on the Hong Kong situation to understand its own past failures, and how it can reform its foreign policy.
As long as the protests are ongoing, the EU must maintain its position that this is an international issue, as Mogherini insinuated, and not simply a sovereign one for Beijing. China is, indeed, desperate for the issue not to be internationalised and their retort to the joint EU-Canada démarche stated: “The ‘one country, two systems’ is enshrined in the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China and the Basic Law of the Hong Kong SAR, not [in] international law.” This is Beijing’s default position. It is the same stance it takes on the abuses in Xinjiang. On a similar level, it has also called for the South China Sea disputes to be settled by regionally, via exclusive negotiations between China and rival Southeast Asian claimants through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In none too subtle terms, Beijing is basically telling Western nations not to stick their nose into “Asian” affairs, either in the South China Sea nor Hong Kong – and certainly not in Xinjiang. This is contingent with Beijing’s position on “Asia for Asians.”
But, just as the EU and US, as well as rival Asian claimants, have tried their best to internationalise the South China Sea issue (the Philippines even took China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration over their dispute) so, too, must the EU now make sure that the Hong Kong question remains an international issue. Indeed, the protestors are keen for the international community to show an interest in their struggle, and have called on support from Britain, the guarantor of Hong Kong’s autonomy and the Joint Declaration. But the UK’s new prime minister, Boris Johnson, has said next to nothing about Hong Kong, no doubt concerned about frustrating China when he might need a swift trade deal with Beijing should it come to a “no-deal” Brexit. And none of this was helped by comments from US President Donald Trump, who called the protestors “rioters” and said of the dispute: “That’s between Hong Kong and that’s between China, because Hong Kong is a part of China.”
Nonetheless, European politicians should use the upcoming G7 summit to press for a peaceful and progressive solution to the Hong Kong dispute, again making it an international issue. This year’s summit has justifiably been called a “diplomatic quagmire,” since the Hong Kong question will be coupled with talks on the US-China trade war, Brexit and the Iran nuclear deal, among other major issues. Unless he is not the rational, cunning leader many pundits think he is, Chinese president Xi Jinping won’t want to escalate the protests into a military crisis. While Chinese nationalists are goading for a heavy-handed response, senior policymakers know that such tactics could result, eventually, in Hong Kong losing its financial hub status and Beijing losing its cash-cow. Chinese military action in Hong Kong, even if it pacifies the protestors, would be a pyrrhic victory at best. Indeed, using force might assuage nationalists and hawks at home, but it will be ruinous economically – and the Communist Party depends more on economic growth than nationalism for legitimacy.
The EU must also continue to strengthen its security relations in Asia, so that it is taken more seriously as a geopolitical actor in the region, which at the moment it isn’t. It is moving in that direct, albeit rather slowly. But, most important, Brussels must use the on-going events in Hong Kong to inform a new coherent and long-term policy on China. For much of the last year we have heard former and current European foreign policymakers admit that they didn’t take China seriously enough in the past, and they are now playing catch-up. An article in the Financial Times from March made clear: “The EU’s approach to China since Tiananmen Square had largely been one of attempting to reap benefits of the country’s rapid growth.” This, clearly, can no longer continue. Some Sinophiles and opportunists will claim that the EU ought to work more closely with Beijing not Washington – and Trump, not Xi, is the real threat to the EU. But that is only true if the EU wants to be isolationist and is prepared to jettison its values on rule of law and democracy. Many senior politicians in Europe, however, desire the EU to play a grander role on the world stage.
China is no friend of democracy, as the situation in Hong Kong shows, and the EU must act accordingly. Although a major EU report this year branded China a “systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance,” as well as an economic competitor, it was hardly a coherent platform on which to base policy for the next five, ten years. It is time to refine policy thinking, however. Two overarching questions must be answered. Can the EU live with an increasingly assertive China? And, somewhat separately, can the EU live with smaller nations being bullied by an increasingly assertive China?