Should Europe Discuss Sanctioning China Now?
Opinions are divided on whether the European Union should start preparing sanctions against China, in order to deter it from invading Taiwan.
Spring 2023 Issue: The China Challenge
The European Union is “coming under diplomatic pressure from Taipei” to discuss a sanctions package against China that might deter it from invading Taiwan, according to a recent report from Reuters. The Taiwan Policy Act of 2022, which is currently being debated by the US Congress, would, if passed, threaten severe sanctions against China for any aggression against Taiwan. According to Taiwanese sources, who spoke anonymously to this journalist, officials from Taipei have appealed directly to the EU and European governments for them to begin debating further sanctions on China, and to discuss this within the bloc now so that there is unanimity on the matter long before any Chinese attack.
It’s a topic also being spoken about in China. Last month, the Asia Times news website translated the thoughts of several Chinese academics about this issue. Opinions seem split. Zhang Yi, a lecturer at Qingdao University, was paraphrased as saying that “Brussels would definitely not offer help [to Taiwan] at this time while facing serious internal and external problems related to the Russia-Ukraine war.” Chen Fei, of the Central China Normal University, reportedly asserted that, “Even if the US government can reach an agreement on this issue, it is almost impossible for the 27 EU member states to compromise on any sanction package against China.” The state-owned Defense Times, however, published a commentary last month that warned the EU could decide to follow the US to sanction China.
Dodging the Question
Through all of this, the European Commission has been mostly silent, just as most European politicians have been reticent to speak openly about a Taiwan crisis in general. An EU spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comments. But the matter has been lurking on the edge of remarks.
In late July, the head of the Swiss organization that imposes economic sanctions said she reckons that Switzerland, which is neutral, would join the EU in enacting sanctions against Beijing in the event of an invasion of Taiwan, just as it did against Russia after the Ukraine invasion. Norbert Röttgen, a German member of parliament for the center-right Christian Democrats and a foreign policy expert, told local television in August that his country’s close economic relations with China (which is Germany’s largest trading partner) has “created a dependency that leaves us helpless.” Asked if Berlin could back sanctions against China, Röttgen, who had previously served as chairman of the German parliament’s foreign policy committee, replied: “At the moment, not really.”
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a member of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), has dodged the question when asked. However, Bijan Djir-Sarai, general secretary of the Free Democrats (FDP), one of the three parties in the governing coalition, has called for sanctions in the event of an invasion. "It would be important for the West to react immediately with personal and economic sanctions against China," he recently told business newspaper Handelsblatt. He was even specific: “Personal sanctions would, of course, have to hit the Chinese leadership, such as Chinese President Xi [Jinping], high-ranking representatives from the party structures and those responsible in the military.”
Perhaps the most forthcoming comment came from the EU’s new ambassador to China, Jorge Toledo, in an interview with Spanish media in July (before his tenure began). “In the event of a military invasion [of Taiwan] we have made it very clear that the EU, with the US and its allies, will impose similar or even greater measures than those we have now taken against Russia,” he said, according to a translation. A senior European Parliament source told me: “I would assume that this surprised the EEAS and the commission as much as it surprised me, as there hasn’t been any systemic discussion over sanctions.”
Economies and Societies Intertwined
But should the EU and European governments make this “clear,” and should they get to work on debating what sanctions would be meted out? Imposing sanctions on China would be many times more complicated than sanctioning Russia. In 2020, China overtook the US to become the EU’s largest trading partner. It’s in the top two of main purchasers of exports from many EU member states, including Germany. It's the largest investor in several countries. The economies and societies of Europe and China are far more intertwined than those of Europe and Russia. And European politicians have tended to remain doe-eyed about Beijing’s ability to change. It was only in December 2020, before relations turned sour, that the European Commission agreed a (now sidelined) investment pact with Beijing, the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI). The same goes for the European public. Whereas 32 percent of Americans think of China as a “rival”—rather than a “partner” or “competitor”—only 23 percent of Germans, 19 percent of French, and 17 percent of Italians think that way, according to a recent survey.
More problematic, sanctions would require the consent of all 27 EU member states. That proved difficult for the Russian sanctions, despite the more immediate threat and significance of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. How far would the likes of Germany or Hungary, a key conduit for Beijing in Europe, be willing to go? Budapest has frequently blocked EU policy on China. Many other governments will not want to assume the economic costs that sanctions would entail, especially while the US, perhaps the only country that would directly intervene to defend Taiwan, still flirts with its policy of “strategic ambiguity.” Still less when experts are divided on whether Beijing can be deterred or, if it invades, run out of Taiwan.
Why, some query, should Europeans affect their trade and investment with China if that will have zero impact on the Taiwan situation. Indeed, the chances are salami-slice thin that European governments would intervene militarily to defend Taiwan. “US military planners are not counting on Germany or France sending warships, or the United Kingdom sending a carrier in the case of a conflict over Taiwan,” Heino Klinck, a former US deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia, was quoted as saying earlier this year.
“Prepare for Contingencies”
Over sanctions, disunity is almost certain. Arguments will need to be had. So, too, will trade-offs and threats. Unanimity would be even more challenging in a panicked environment. Moreover, discussions over sanctions are unlikely to be concluded within a week or so after a Chinese invasion or blockade of Taiwan. These reasons may tip the argument in favor of early discussions over sanctions.
“Europeans would do well to prepare for contingencies,” advised Boris Ruge, vice-chairman of the Munich Security Conference. “EU institutions should absolutely not only debate the matter but create a proactive plan as to how to respond to any Chinese military—or hybrid—aggression against Taiwan,” Sari Arho Havrén, a visiting researcher at the University of Helsinki specializing in China’s foreign relations, said.
If it means anything to policymakers, sanctions appear to be much of the European public’s preferred method of responding to an invasion of Taiwan. According to the German Marshall Fund’s latest Transatlantic Trends survey, released last week, most French, Italians, Lithuanians, Romanians, and Spanish want their governments to only respond diplomatically to a Chinese attack on Taiwan. The preferred option of Germans, Dutch, Portuguese, Swedes, and Britons is to join other countries in imposing sanctions on China.
An alternative opinion is that it is now way too early to even start discussing sanctions. Indeed, there’s an argument that any discussion of sanctions now would be useless. If an invasion or blockade of Taiwan doesn’t happen until 2024 (the year of the next US and Taiwanese presidential elections, and the year US intelligence reckons it might happen) or later, then any decision taken years beforehand would be outdated. The victory of a pro-Beijing politician in one EU state could scupper any unanimity that had previously been found. Worse, it could tip Beijing off to Europe’s plans.
Some claim there’s no reason to rush, as Beijing wouldn’t be able to launch a surprise attack on Taiwan. A recent report asserted that preparations for a full-scale invasion would be telegraphed perhaps as much as 12 months beforehand. This would presumably give the EU and European governments ample time, while Beijing makes its preparations, to discuss sanctions. And there’s the question of whether sanctions would even be a deterrence. “Sanctions would send a powerful message to Beijing, and possibly slow further China's technological advancement, but I don't think they would forestall China's actions on Taiwan,” Havrén said.
“For the planned sanctions to truly work, we would have to assume that China is not entirely serious with its quest of reunification, and because of the sanctions the price of war would be so high that China would refrain from military actions,” she added. “However, there is no bluff there, Beijing has been crystal clear that Taiwan is by far the reddest line Beijing holds, and the party sees the reunification with Taiwan as a historical commitment. We just don't know how exactly, and when, the reunification will happen.”
Ukraine Is Crucial
Some commentators believe that Europeans first need to decide whether supporting Taiwanese democracy and integrity is worth the considerable cost that sanctions would entail. “The first issue is does the EU and do European countries acknowledge that we have a stake in defending Taiwan’s democracy? Second question would be: are there ways in deterring the PRC from attacking Taiwan?” says a senior European Parliament source. “And only the third question would be: if [China] ventures down that hole, would sanctions be imposed and what sanctions would we impose?”
The outcome of the Ukraine war will be telling, the source added. “At the moment, many of our capacities are dedicated to helping Ukraine win the war. And if we succeed in that effort, that will have an impact on all of the strategic issues that will come before us,” they said. “And I do not believe that it would be solid policymaking to promise anything regarding Taiwan before we see what our promises vis-a-vis Ukraine deliver.” They went on: “Of course it would be helpful if there was a clear willingness to help deter China, to help stabilize Taiwan’s democracy, to show solidarity—but I believe the order of things is such that without being able to assess the efforts we’ve been making regards to Ukraine it would hardly be meaningful to make grandiose statements about an island that is far off in the Pacific.”
David Hutt is a political journalist based between the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom, covering European foreign affairs and Europe-Asia relations.