IN BRIEF: EXPERT FORUM PRESIDENT SORIN IONITA
By 9DASHLINE | June 22, 2021 | Re-published as a part of our partnership with 9DASHLINE.
On Wednesday this week, Bucharest-based think-tank Expert Forum (EFOR) is hosting an online event dedicated to Taiwan in partnership with Taiwan NextGen Foundation and 9DASHLINE. Ahead of this, we sat down with EFOR President Sorin Ionita for a fascinating discussion that touched on a wide range of issues including Taiwan-EU relations, China, propaganda, trade and human rights and much more.
9DL: Despite the absence of official or formal ties between them, the EU supports Taiwan’s meaningful participation in international organisations. At the same time, China is a key factor shaping the EU’s geopolitical role in the world, including its increasing focus on the Indo-Pacific. Why did you decide to host this Taiwan focused event now and what do you expect to achieve?
SI: Expert Forum (EFOR) started a pilot monitoring of China’s influence in the Black Sea area in 2020. We realised that much of the conversation about China in Europe was focused on the West or the Visegrad 4 (Central Europe), where most of the action was. The irony is that while we were combing the data from five countries around the Black Sea, the tone of the debate on China suddenly changed. There has been a serious backlash in political circles and European public opinion, especially after the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) treaty with China was rushed through the European Council in the last days of 2020. That was the moment when we looked closer at our object of study and realised that the authoritarian regime we were monitoring is not “China”, i.e. the whole country and society with which we tend to equivalate it. There is a human dimension to the relationship between Europe and the Chinese subcontinent. We recently published a brief report on Chinese diaspora communities within our capital cities, in cooperation with a researcher with Taiwanese roots.
We realised that there exists another China, which is democratic, pluralist and where the media is free. We share with it not only fundamental values but also common interests in business, trade, cybersecurity, academia and cultural cooperation. So, we decided to raise the profile of the Republic of China (Taiwan) to our national public(s), where Taiwan has been almost invisible, despite its presence with investments in the region. The promotion of democracy, which is part of our organisation’s mission, means not only saying no to dictators but also explaining what is the alternative and debunking the predictable accusations of Sinophobia that the regime in Beijing throws at us whenever somebody in Europe criticises them.
9DL: In recent months, Brussels has labelled China a “systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance” and condemned Beijing’s ‘divide and rule’ tactics in Europe, the deterioration of human rights in the country, and assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific. Yet, member states do not see eye-to-eye on China and have their own national agendas. In this regard, how do you see the future of EU-China relations?
SI: China, or more correctly put, the party-state headquartered in Beijing, has rapidly become a divisive issue in Europe over the past year or so. This has also reminded us that the EU is more than simply a collection of nation-states: the China debate cuts across borders, aligning social groups and party formations according to values and principles, not just national interests. Last week an important German business association issued an explicit statement criticising the CCP’s repression of minorities and Hong Kong — these are politically sensitive topics from which multinational companies, particularly German ones, were normally keeping a safe distance. We’re also seeing the debate about boycotting the Beijing Winter Olympics intensifying with the growing involvement of opinion circles and publications from many countries that are in no way China-hawks.
The German elections in September will be a crucial moment: if the Greens win the chancellorship, or at least become members of a ruling coalition, these trends will likely consolidate since the pragmatic wing currently dominating the German Green Party is much more anti-Putin and anti-CCP than their predecessors. European big business will of course continue to push their agenda of value-neutral cooperation with Beijing (and Moscow), but they will not have the ear of their governments to the same extent as before, and their reputation costs will increase if they do it too openly in the new climate of opinion. Every new agreement, business deal or political link with Beijing, which until a few years ago would have passed unnoticed, will stand out like a sore thumb and be scrutinised like never before from all corners of Europe.
9DL: In May, Lithuania, decided to withdraw from China-led the 17+1 Forum intended to help strengthen connectivity between 12 CEE EU member states, five countries of the Western Balkans and China. Lithuania’s Foreign Minister said the cooperation program brought his country “almost no benefits”, and soon after announced the country would expand relations with Taiwan by opening an economic representation there. Romania has been a member of this Forum from the beginning and continues to remain within. In your view, has the 17+1 platform brought benefits to the region or Europe as a whole and how does Bucharest view these emerging dynamics?
SI: The 17+1 initiative has mostly been hot air, especially in the Black Sea countries. It generated a series of political events, photo-ops and exchanges of delegations, but few concrete results. The strategic projects discussed in Romania and Bulgaria, for instance (nuclear energy, dams, ports and highways) either did not make business sense or were burdened with clauses that are illegal under EU law since many were in fact convoluted schemes to syphon-off public resources through state aid. It is no coincidence that most of the BRI-like investments took place outside the EU, in Serbia and Montenegro, and their implementation led to controversy or public scandals. The Chinese domestic market remains closed to Balkan agricultural products, while the assets that Chinese investors usually seek in Europe — strong brands, interesting know-how, large markets — were snapped up long ago by Western European partners. Romania and Bulgaria will probably not follow soon in the footsteps of Lithuania, i.e. leave the 17+1, but instead let the initiative fall into oblivion and die a natural death. In the case of Romania, the exclusion of Huawei from 5G projects and the ban on Chinese companies from tendering for public works sends a signal at least as strong as a formal withdrawal from 17+1.
9DL: Despite a growing awareness of China’s global importance across Europe, there remains a lack of understanding of China’s role in the world. As a result, the implications of China’s increasing influence in Europe are misunderstood, and the ramifications of China’s lack of compliance with international rules and norms are left unaddressed. As a representative of a think tank committed to good governance, transparency and democratic values, what do you believe the EU and member states should do to address this lack of China competency in Europe?
SI: Last month, Chatham House published a brilliant report on the myths and misconceptions affecting the Western debate on Russia. A good deal of what the report says is true, mutatis mutandis, about how we view the People’s Republic of China too — perhaps even more so, since Europeans know less about the PRC than Russia. Myth no. 2 (“Russia/China and the West want the same thing”) and myth no. 4 (“Russia/China is not in a conflict with the West”) are of particular relevance, I believe. Both are, of course, false. We entertain the illusion that the fundamental priorities of democratic and non-democratic regimes are the same, when in fact they diverge from the start. What we find acceptable/unacceptable in social and political practice is different in the two types of regimes and no amount of rhetorical relativism can close the gap. The hostility towards liberal democracy and international norms of cooperation is inbuilt; unconventional hostile measures and indirect disruptive actions are their modus operandi — no diplomatic effort can change that. Europe must urgently educate the broader public about these facts of life and increase social resilience to propaganda by bolstering critical thinking. We should also capitalise on the experience of Eastern Europeans, who have been through totalitarian experiences in their recent past and still preserve a certain natural scepticism towards the blatant party propaganda practised by the CCP.
9DL: Through its assertive global posturing, the PRC is signalling that European values relating to freedom and the rule of law are subordinate to its pursuit of the “China Dream” and “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. As fundamental freedoms are suppressed in the country, the Chinese leadership seeks “to tell China’s story well” and enhance the country’s cultural soft power. Do you think Beijing’s efforts have been successful in convincing the world of its good intentions? What can Europe do to ensure that fundamental freedoms are protected?
SI: The model of authoritarian development may seem an attractive proposition as long as it delivers growth, and if you don’t happen to be a resident of China and experience its flip side, i.e. the vast inequality, civic restrictions, flimsiness of social services, or the frequent public safety and consumer protection mishaps. As I have argues elsewhere, the CCP’s agitprop (“telling the story well”) is not even targeting the West in the first place, but average Chinese citizens who must be persuaded they live in the best possible world and that their leaders are indispensable to the rest of the planet. Again, we in Eastern Europe have heard this music before.
If there is one thing we can make clear to Europe and the West more generally, it is to stop equating the party-state and the entire Chinese society, which is amazing in its diversity. We should turn the tables on the regime, which is trying to influence our societies through propaganda, and reach out not only to Hong Kong, where liberty is being crushed right now, or to the ethnic minorities, but also to the ordinary Chinese citizen, whose opinion is silenced and life is made insecure under the vague and ever-changing taboos of the party. We should start by denying Beijing the propaganda opportunities it craves so much, like the 2022 Olympic games, and press our own companies to adopt a less cynical line when they do business in China — or else leave the place.
9DL: Beijing has doubled down on its efforts “to create a credible, lovable and respectable image of China” after the pandemic. In your view, how has China’s handling of the pandemic affected its image in Romania?
SI: Unfortunately, since Romania was not included in the last surveys on China’s global image, we don’t have numbers at hand. I think it is likely that local public opinion is in line with the rest of Europe, where Beijing’s reputation has suffered after the backlash against its aggressive vaccine diplomacy and the recent ‘wolf warrior’ attitude of some Chinese officials.
Like Poland, Romania is also quite Russophobic; this scepticism is likely to be transferred to the CCP to some extent, as Moscow and Beijing are perceived to be tacitly coordinating their actions in the region. Moreover, the storm-in-a-teacup tangle of rivalries in Eastern Europe, since our neighbours Hungary and Serbia are such enthusiastic friends of President Xi these days, Romanians feel somehow obliged to do the opposite, if only out of contrarianism, which is a cherished Balkan tradition. It is also true that the partnership with the US is considered very important in Poland and Romania, states in the first line of defence against Russia; this explains why Bucharest could impose drastic measures against Chinese companies without much debate in society.
All this does not mean that Romanians are more committed democrats than their neighbours; non-democratic agendas can easily become popular, like Russian-style social conservatism based on anti-Western conspiracies, especially if the source is not very visible. One can copy Putin’s agenda and run with it in elections as long as any association with Russia is carefully airbrushed. Such a subtle cultural game is more difficult to play from Beijing, at least for the time being.
Eastern Europe and the Republic of China (Taiwan): Prospects for Democratic and Economic Cooperation
Wednesday, 23 June 2021, 11:00 CET (17:00 Taipei; 12:00 Bucharest)
This event will be broadcast on Facebook