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Britain and China lock horns at home and abroad

China Influence Monitor is a weekly newsletter published by CEPA and Coda Story, tracking the westward footprint of China’s influence operations. In this edition: China tries to reboot its ties with the EU and Afghanistan looms large

HIGH SEAS, HIGH STAKES

China reacted splenetically as HMS Queen Elizabeth, the Royal Navy’s largest vessel, entered the South China Sea. The aircraft carrier has American warplanes on board and leads a flotilla including a Dutch warship. 

“China receives friends with good wine and deals with wolves with a shotgun,” said thinktanker Wu Shicun, effortlessly winning this week’s Wolf Warrior award. 

Two possible flashpoints:

  • The Western warships will certainly venture within 12 miles of what China regards as its territory (meaning fortified rocks and reefs — international waters for everyone else). “Imprudent,” says the nationalist Global Times. 
  • A British vessel (or two) will make an “innocent passage” of the Taiwan straits, taking the shortest route, say, from South Korea to Vietnam.  

Aside from abundant sound and fury, what’s all this for? The Americans are hinting that Britain might be “more helpful” propping up the rickety defence of Europe. But that doesn’t fit with the post-Brexit  image of a buccaneering “Global Britain.”

LIGHTS ON BUT NOBODY HOME 

Buccaneers still need to keep the lights on. Britain for years thought China was the answer to its infrastructure problems from 5G mobile networks (Huawei) to nuclear power plants. Not any more. The stench of screeching rubber hangs over Whitehall and Westminster as decision-makers reverse away from their previous contention that China is reliable. Ministers want to build the Sizewell C nuclear plant on the Suffolk coast without China General Nuclear (CGN), which owns one-fifth of the project. The government may buy a stake to keep China out.

Next up — CGN’s minority stake in another plant: EDF’s Hinkley Point C in Somerset. The plan was to use these contracts to boost backing for another Chinese-designed reactor. No chance of that now. But the change of course will cost billions. Will electricity consumers or the taxpayer foot the bill?

As Sino-British relations ice over, spare a thought for foreign correspondents in China — particularly BBC ones. Watch this for a taste of harassment (actually based on mistaken identity)  and this Chinese state media counterblast.

DIPLOMATIC NEWS

It’s not just Britain. For all its anti-American posturing, France is sharpening its posture towards China too, with the promise of closer ties with Japan. The EU, Japan, Australia and the US jointly called for China to cooperate with an international investigation into the source of the Covid-19 pandemic. And US Secretary of State Tony Blinken met a representative of the Dalai Lama during his trip to India —  any American allies willing to do that?

China’s trying to reboot its ties with the EU. Foreign minister Wang Yi met visiting Finnish foreign minister Pekka Haavisto to push the “let’s be friends” message. Haavisto’s human-rights worries did not feature in the Chinese read-out. The charm offensive also featured a face-to-face meeting with the Maltese foreign minister last week and online talks with Portugal. That’s rather a thin harvest—to reset relations China will need to convince countries like France and Germany. 

The Czech government seems to be getting its act together. It has donated vaccines to Taiwan and stopped the local subsidiary of a German company, Rohde a Schwarz, selling surveillance tech to China. And CITIC, a Chinese investor, has sold its stake in a Czech media company.

Afghanistan looms large on China’s horizon. Wang met Abdul Ghani Baradar, head of the Taliban political committee, who promised among other things to uphold rights of women and girls and welcomed future Chinese investment. Wang reiterated Chinese worries about Uyghurs in the Afghan Islamist movement’s ranks. China held military talks with Tajikistan too. 

HIDE AND SEEK 

Moroccan police arrested a fugitive Uyghur, Yidiresi Aishan, on his arrival from Istanbul, acting on Chinese interpol warrant — it’s a reminder of how easily authoritarians abuse international law-enforcement. This gripping investigation by ProPublica lays bare China’s “Fox Hunt” — the use of police-cooperation deals to repatriate (kidnap) Chinese expats accused of financial crimes. The New York Times highlights the pressure exerted on Uyghur exiles to return home. Two other Chinese dissidents hurriedly left Ukraine fearing extradition: China’s influence is growing there, too.

WHAT WE’RE READING

  • A blistering piece by Dominic Lawson on medical-scientific collusion with Chinese propaganda. 
  • This excellent Twitter thread by Andreas Fulda on the failures of successive German chancellors to deal properly with China. 
  • The authorities in Kazakhstan tread cautiously on China. But a slice of the population fumes about abuses across the border, and protests publicly. Jamestown has a useful summary.   
  • How effective are China’s influence operations really? Lotus Ruan and Gabrielle Lim argue that they are often “counterproductive.” The (also excellent) “China Transparency Report,” published by the Heritage Foundation, argued similarly. My view is that though the party-state’s meddlers and mischief-makers make blunders, their influence is genuinely growing, especially where Western countries are weak, complacent or arrogant. Exploiting anti-Americanism in Europe and promoting Xinjiang denialism are two big successes.

Coda Story’s Makuna Berkatsashvili, Mariam Kiparoidze, Isobel Cockerell, Katia Patin and Michael Newton at CEPA contributed to this week’s China Influence Monitor, a joint project of CEPA and Coda Story. Sign up here to get the next edition straight in your inbox.

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Edward Lucas

Edward Lucas is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). He was formerly a senior editor at The Economist. Lucas has covered Central and Eastern European affairs since 1986, writing, broadcasting, and speaking on the politics, economics, and security of the region.

A graduate of the London School of Economics and long-serving foreign correspondent in Berlin, Vienna, Moscow, and the Baltic states, he is an internationally recognized expert on espionage, subversion, the use and abuse of history, energy security and information warfare.

He is the author of four books: The New Cold War (2008, newly revised and republished); Deception (2011); The Snowden Operation (2014), and Cyberphobia (2015).

@edwardlucas