Match words with actions
An inaugural “Friends of Syria” meeting last week, attended by more than 70 countries, called for additional economic sanctions against Syria and demanded that the regime there stop all acts of violence.
But China, which boycotted the meeting in Tunisia, has already indicated its opposition to additional sanctions, with its United Nations Ambassador Li Baodong saying that “sanctions, rather than help resolve an issue, often lead to further complications.”
This is not surprising since China had also opposed to the imposition of economic sanctions by the United Nations against other countries, such as Iran and the Sudan.
Fu Ying, now vice foreign minister, explained China’s position on economic sanctions in a major speech on relations with the West in October 2008 when she was ambassador to the United Kingdom. She said: “Economic sanctions and military force are not serious options in China’s diplomatic toolkit. China will become strong, but never hegemonic.”
This position, which is at variance from that of Western countries, has been repeatedly stated by Chinese officials.
As a country that had been a target of Western sanctions after the Tiananmen Square military crackdown, it is understandable that China should object to such measures.
Unfortunately, this stated principle does not seem to be reflected consistently in Chinese actions.
Thus, the month after Fu’s talk, China canceled the planned December 2008 summit with the European Union because of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s announcement that he would meet with the Dalai Lama.
Immediately afterward, China set out to punish France through economic warfare.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao toured Europe in early 2009 but conspicuously avoided France. The Chinese leader visited Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, Spain and Britain. During this trip, agreements worth more than $2.2 billion were signed.
Premier Wen himself said: “I looked at a map of Europe. My trip goes around France.”
China also sent a buying mission to Europe. A delegation of 200 Chinese entrepreneurs, led by Commerce Minister Chen Deming, visited Germany, Switzerland, Spain and Britain ― but not France. That trip resulted in contracts worth $10.6 billion.
France could not take much more of this and, by April, it capitulated. In a statement it said it “fully recognizes the importance and sensitivity of the Tibet issue and reaffirms its adherence to the one-China policy and the position that Tibet is an integral part of Chinese territory.”
There are unlikely to be further meetings with the Dalai Lama.
Economic sanctions remain a potent weapon in China’s armory, one that it is using this instant against a tiny country ― Norway.
The decision by the Norwegian Nobel Committee to award the 2010 Peace Prize to an imprisoned Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo, enraged Beijing.
Even though the committee acts independently of the government, China has since 2010 punished the Norwegian government.
Immediately after the Nobel Committee’s decision was announced, China canceled meetings with Norway’s fisheries minister, Lisbeth Berg-Hansen, who was already in Beijing.
In the 16 months since then, China has not agreed to any meetings with Norway and instead has demanded an apology from the government.
Norway, which had been the main supplier of salmon to China, found new “health inspections” being imposed on its products, with salmon allowed to rot, leading to a 70 percent drop in such exports. Norway has reported China to the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Thus, despite Fu’s assertion, economic sanctions certainly appear to be a serious option in China’s diplomatic toolkit. In fact, the Philippines, which has overlapping territorial claims with Beijing in the South China Sea, now stands warned.
“China could postpone the implementation of investment agreements,” the official Global Times newspaper said in an article. “Chinese people could reject traveling to the Philippines and China should decrease imports from the Philippines. Any slowdown in Sino-Philippine cooperation will put long-term pressure on the country.”
This is a prescription for economic sanctions. How, one wonders, can that be squared with China’s official declaration that economic sanctions are not a serious option in its diplomatic toolkit?
The reality, it seems, is that China will on one hand use its veto in the United Nations Security Council to obstruct Western attempts to censure governments for proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and for human rights violations ― including killing its own people ― but on the other hand Beijing will itself use economic pressure when it encounters problems in its bilateral relations.
There is a difference it seems, between China’s words and its actions.
Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator based in Hong Kong. E-mail the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1.