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China’s Hostage Diplomacy

As the COVID-19 crisis continues, policy makers wonder what sort of world we shall inherit once it’s over. There is no doubt we should change our approach when dealing with the Peoples Republic of China. We have to focus in particular on means of tackling their use of diplomatic extortion via so called ‘hostage diplomacy’.

The actions of the Chinese Communist Party in the lead up to this global epidemic are well documented from the lies about the official figures, camouflaging evidences and the silencing of whistle-blowers, to the fact that they simply didn’t act swiftly enough to halt the spread around the rest of the world.

This sort of attitude is well known to me, a person from Central Europe, and reminds me the way the Soviet Communists tried to cover up the Chernobyl disaster.  Such mismanagement is inescapable in a Communist system, staffed by ‘Yes Men’ who’s first instinct is to lie and deny any problems as they have neither the courage nor competency to move quickly in tackling disasters.

Overdependence on the PRC has proven to be a strategic blunder on the part of Western countries.  My very first initiative at the beginning of this term as a Member of the European Parliament was to draw attention of the European Commission to the problem. In my intervention I pointed out that more than 60% of the active ingredients in medicines are produced outside the EU, mainly in China, and these critical supplies are increasingly exposed to risk. Recent events have proved that critical sectors of our economies can no longer be dependent on the red Chinese dragon. It is clear that an economic realignment is needed – including looking for friendlier and more reliable trading partners.

The Western World is starting to realise that for too long they have given the Peoples Republic of China the benefit of the doubt, and the Communists have abused it. Perhaps the worst case of this is the issue of the status of the Republic of China (Taiwan). Moreover, the last year has shown that Beijing’s bullying tactics against its neighbours are now being deployed worldwide, also against the West, which has continued to approach the issue with a great deal of ambiguity. Whilst formally recognising the ‘One China Policy’, many Western countries still maintain unofficial offices of representation in Taipei. Likewise, the Taiwanese government maintains offices in most countries around the world. These quasi-diplomatic links have laid out a path for more formal arrangements in the future.

Although full recognition of Taiwanese independence for many practical reasons is a long way off, economic cooperation could easily be enhanced. Taiwan not only shares our democratic values, but also has a stable industrial base from which to build on. Enhancing trade relations between the West and Taiwan would serve to reduce dependence on Communist China and uphold economic links with this part of the world. Equally, there are some areas in which official recognition of Taiwan could be beneficial to both parties, such as giving the island its own seat on the World Health Organization. This could perhaps be a term for the United States to begin refunding the WHO, after President Donald Trump pulled American financial support from the institution last week.

A cross-party letter recently circulated around the European Parliament in Brussels has gained support of more than 100 Members spanning across Europe. It calls for recognition of Taiwan by the WHO, a move that is particularly important in these challenging times.

On a larger scale, China has applied the same diplomatic extortion to international politics with Taiwan. Any attempt to recognise Taiwan is met with economic threats. Many smaller countries in Latin America and the Pacific Islands have faced tough sanctions for their continued recognition of Taiwan. Last year both Kiribati and the Solomon Islands severed ties with Taiwan amidst mounting diplomatic pressure from China.

The same has already started to happen in Africa. As it stands, Eswatini is the only country in Africa that continues to recognise Taiwan’s independence. As a result they have found themselves under increased pressure – including economic threats. Other countries in Africa have accepted China’s demands and as a result, have been rewarded in kind. Whilst China in the beginning used soft diplomacy – such as seemingly reasonable loans for infrastructure projects – many states have found themselves in debt and without the promised infrastructure. This strategy used by China to lure underdeveloped African countries has even its own name: “debt–trap diplomacy”. I am convinced that Africa, like Taiwan, could benefit from a Western boycott of China. With supply chains adjusting to move manufacturing jobs from mainland China to friendlier countries in West Africa or South East Asia.

China isn’t only holding the Island of Taiwan hostage. For more than a year the PRC holds in prison actual hostages from Canada, on charges of endangering state security. This is widely seen as an attempt to use ‘hostage diplomacy’ to force the release of a Chinese telecommunications executive who was arrested in Canada. Moreover, Beijing has inflicted an economic punishment on Canadians, putting in a hopeless situation companies which have become solely dependent on Chinese market or the PRC’s industrial base.

Economic and geopolitical strategies should be open for review due to our dependency on China. Europe must keep alternative options on the table. We cannot allow the freedom of our citizens, security of our societies, the prosperity of our companies, and sovereign policies of our states become China’s hostages.