The bust-up; a Wolf Warrior winner; vaccine diplomacy

Edward Lucas


Hello, and welcome to China Influence Monitor, a weekly newsletter published by CEPA and Coda Story and edited by me, Edward Lucas. We track the westward footprint of China’s influence operations, and their effects on politics, economies, societies and alliances across Central Asia, the Caucasus, Russia and Europe.

In this issue: meltdown in Paris; spies caught, hacks exposed; no-shows at a Beijing show-trial.

Geopolitical kick-boxing 

Ding dong, seconds out. Welcome to the biggest east-west diplomatic spat in years. No knock-out blows so far but lots of bruises. The story this week: 

Round One: Well-coordinated, unprecedented sanctions from the EU, US, Canada and UK against officials responsible for abuses of Uyghurs’ human rights. An impressive example of Western resolve — and unthinkable only a year ago.

Round Two: Amid lots of performative outrage (though not much surprise) ambassadors in Beijing are summoned for rebukes. China blacklists 10 individuals (five MEPs, three national lawmakers and two think-tankers) plus two EU committees, the Denmark-based Alliance of Democracies Foundation and Germany’s Mercator Institute for China Studies. 

They “severely harm China’s sovereignty and interests and maliciously spread lies and disinformation,” the foreign ministry complained, while Global Times published this splenetic-but-flimsy charge sheet. 

Round three: European foreign ministries respond by hauling in Chinese ambassadors. As well as the usual suspects (hawkish Sweden and Lithuania) they included Italy (once the most China-friendly big country in Europe), and ever-cautious Germany, which complained of “inappropriate escalation”. Hot-foot from the bust-up in Alaska, Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, flew to Brussels to back both the EU and a newly China-focused NATO.

More was to come. China’s embassy in Paris tweeted that ambassador Lu Shaye couldn’t come to the ministry for “scheduling reasons”. The envoy had already kicked off with vituperative tweets urging French lawmakers not to visit Taiwan, and calling a researcher, Antoine Bondaz, a “little thug”, and a “crazed hyena” for defending them. 

Tempers frayed further. “Neither France nor Europe is a doormat,” fumed Europe minister Clément Beaune. When Lu did turn up, a day late, the ministry’s Asia director, Bertrand Lortholary, told him that the embassy’s methods and public comments were “completely unacceptable.”

Winner: Ambassador Lu Shaye storms off with this week’s Wolf Warrior Prize for counterproductive diplomacy. 

Five consequences: 

  1. Europeans no longer need to choose between China and the US: Beijing’s making the choice for them. The bullying fuels European support for the Biden administration’s global coalition.
  2. Ratification of the EU-China investment deal is now in big trouble: in the European Parliament and at national level (not least in France).
  3. The Western pushback is energizing Chinese-Russian ties. Russia is likely to invite China to take part in this year’s biennial Zapad-21 military exercises in Belarus — which rehearse attacks on NATO.
  4. China will continue to stoke divisions in Europe. Hungary’s foreign minister Péter Szijjártó slammed the EU sanctions as “pointless, self-aggrandizing and harmful”. China’s defense minister Wei Fenghe just visited Budapest. His next stops: Serbia, Greece and North Macedonia.
  5. With nothing to lose, some of those on the sanctions list hint that a trip to Taiwan is tempting. That will enrage the mainland authorities. 

A snapshot of the shifting diplomatic spectrum: Canada says 28 diplomats from 26 Beijing embassies (including most European ones) tried to attend the show-trial of the detained Michael Kovrig. We’ve asked Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland about their no-show.

In other news: 

  • Estonia jails a scientist for spying for China (normally Estonia catches Russian spies: this is a first); 
  • Finland blames China for hacking its parliament (interesting that this was made public);
  • Latvia’s security service worries about Chinese propaganda. (We’ve previously reported about similar concerns in neighboring Estonia and Lithuania.)
  • Slovenian lawmakers get cold feet about a proposed Taiwan friendship group (a reminder that even a breath of Chinese disapproval can deter the faint-hearted). 
  • In Britain, local politicians in the east London district of Tower Hamlets, home to China’s pharaonic new embassy, have a mischievous plan to rename local streets as Tiananmen Square, Uyghur Court, Hong Kong Road and Tibet Hill to assert “support for the freedom and diversity of our borough.”

Vaccine diplomacy

Even staunchly pro-Western Albania has crumbled, buying Chinese vaccines from Turkey. Hungary approved the single-dose Convidecia jab for emergency use. Elsewhere Ukraine is receiving Chinese vaccines by the end of March. Kyrgyzstan says thanks for Chinese jabs and Turkmenistan’s giving them to doctors and police.

But the Financial Times highlights concerns over consistency of supplies, high prices and unexplained instances of low immunity.

Business news

Montenegro’s deputy prime minister Dritan Abazović wants EU help in paying back a Chinese loan, originally $944 million, taken out in 2014 to build a motorway. It now amounts to one-third of the country’s foreign debt. But a Chinese-financed bridge in Croatia is proceeding smoothly and a highway in Serbia is being completed ahead of schedule.

What we’re watching: CEPA panel discussions (moderated by me) on digital influence and information operations.

What we’re reading:

  • Central Asia: An Open Democracy feature on how language teaching underpins Chinese soft power.
  • Germany: The New York Times reports on a German enclave in China: bratwurst and a lot of money are involved. And the Frankfurter Allgemeine reports on attempts to muzzle critics.
  • Huawei: Pushing the Chinese telecoms giant out of 5G was the easy bit, argues CEPA’s Jake Morris. Now it’s turning to AI.  
  • Slovakia: Universities there have a China problem — murky ties to those involved in repression and surveillance. A good example of how influence operations thrive amid complacency.
  • Switzerland: A new China strategy features “coherence” (a nice change, if it happens). Despite cross instructions from China’s embassy, Switzerland may adopt EU sanctions, too. 
  • Turkey: The authorities are reviving ambitious plans for infrastructure ties with China across the Caucasus and Central Asia. We’ve heard it before — but Turkey has few options now. 

Thanks to Isobel Cockerell, Oleksandr Ignatenko, Mariam Kiparoidze, Mariia Pankova of Coda Story, and to Michael Newton at CEPA.

We’ll be back in your inboxes next week.

Best regards