China knows that it is isolating itself: what could it do to win friends rather than enemies?


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

A few weeks ago, I participated in a series of Track II dialogues that a group of former Western diplomats and officials hold every few months with a group of Chinese think tankers from Beijing and Shanghai. Many of the latter are former diplomats or military commanders, so they have a good idea of what is going on inside the national security apparatus in Beijing. At a time when the West’s relations with China have been deteriorating rapidly and on multiple fronts – from curbing Chinese foreign investments, to criticising Beijing’s human rights record, or bullying of Hong Kong and Taiwan – it is all the more important to keep channels of communication open at the informal level and to try to understand what is driving the other side’s thinking and behaviour.

From our dialogue, it was clear to me that Chinese policymakers are seriously concerned about their country’s increasing isolation, and the mounting scrutiny and criticism it is facing. Of course, they are hardly likely to admit that Western criticisms are founded, even in an off-the-record setting, and they always have their counter-arguments well-honed and rehearsed. Nonetheless, my sense was that just as we in the West are waking up to the fact that the next decades will be determined by how well we match up to the Chinese challenge, the Chinese on their side are waking up to the fact that they are going to have to contend with a much more united and vigorous pushback from the democracies than they had bargained for. Counting on access to their market to keep us quiet or targeting us individually to exert maximum pressure are tactics that are no longer guaranteed to work.

Over the past year, the signs of a Western pushback have become unmistakable. The United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and the European Union have imposed sanctions, simultaneously and in a coordinated manner, on Chinese officials and state entities for their mistreatment of the Uighur minority. European leaders who have tended to avoid public criticism of China, fearing Chinese retaliation against profitable trading relationships, have become more vocal, with the latest being the German foreign minister in a press conference with his Chinese counterpart.

The transatlantic partners and Australia have begun to screen and limit Chinese foreign investments and to scrutinise its use of economic intelligence and aggressive cyber intrusions to gain access to Western technology and intellectual property. European navies are sending more warships to participate in exercises with their Asian partners in the Indo-Pacific and to join the US in implementing freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. At home, Western governments have been studying their critical supply chains in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic to determine how much reliance on China and risk of possible disruptions they are willing to accept. Also how they can improve their resilience and freedom of action against future shocks and crises where Beijing could try to assert its diplomatic, economic or financial leverage.

The Chinese have rolled out the traditional playbook of the authoritarian states

The great decoupling of the Western and Chinese economies and tech ecosystems advocated by the Trump administration is clearly neither feasible nor desirable for either side. Globalisation is here to stay, but the Western democracies will work closer together to design more transparent rules of the road, to balance global interdependencies with more regional economic integration, and to assure technology sovereignty among the democracies themselves.

Faced with this new Western pushback, the Chinese have rolled out the traditional playbook of the authoritarian states.

First is to claim victimhood. The West is ganging up on China unreasonably and is trying to do the country down. It is refusing China’s rise and to allow it to take its rightful ‘place in the sun’.

Second is to deny the legitimacy and even the reality of the criticisms. There are no Uighur concentration camps. If and where they exist, they are pleasant job training and integration establishments. Opposition leaders in Hong Kong, even the elected ones, are just hooligans and gangsters disrupting the social peace.

Third, the West is far more imperfect and dysfunctional. Just look at the 6 January riots in the US Capitol or the Black Lives Matter movement and the polarisation and racism these point to. How can the West be so hypocritical as to condemn China when its own socio-economic model seems to be failing?

Isolation is never a winning policy

Fourth, Western criticism can be useful and used at home to whip up nationalism and feelings of unfairness and wounded pride. As Putin in Russia and the Chinese leadership know only too well, alleging foreign threats and interference is a good way to deflect public attention from the government’s performance on the domestic front. As the criticism comes from a West that is in decline, and where less and less of the world’s population actually lives, it does not need to be taken seriously. It is a backhanded compliment to the success of the authoritarians in imposing themselves and their interests on the international agenda.

This type of confrontational approach based on denial and delegitimisation of everything that comes from the outside is an easy and comfortable line for Beijing to take. If adversaries are wrong, and unreasonable, then it makes no sense to try to negotiate with them. China’s leaders are reconfirmed in their black and white views of the world. If the West is wrong, then it is its responsibility to tender the olive branch first. Rather than modify its behaviour, Beijing doubles down, imposing counter-sanctions that go one step further. We have seen this with the sanctions imposed on US Congress members and members of the European Parliament in the wake of US and EU sanctions on four Chinese officials. This disproportionate and escalatory reaction is designed to intimidate and deter future such actions. But the question is whether the long-term damage to China’s international image, and to its trading interests, outweighs the short-term political effect of muscle flexing. The European Parliament has suspended the ratification of the China-EU Comprehensive Agreement on Investment until the sanctions on its members are lifted.

In light of these tit-for-tat moves and the overall deterioration of Beijing’s relations with many of its largest trading partners, this is a good moment for China to pull the stop cord and to rethink. Isolation is never a winning policy and China’s rise was facilitated by the openness of the Western democracies to Chinese investments, goods and services. Pursuing the successful Chinese growth model in a confrontational world where China has largely contributed to the confrontation will be much more difficult. It would be akin to exercising power while undermining the economic foundations on which that power has been built.

There are areas of rapprochement which imaginative diplomats in both Beijing and Western capitals could usefully exploit

The EU and the US, moreover, have come out with strategies that clearly rule out a Cold War with Beijing and divide their China policy into a mix of cooperation where possible and pushback where necessary. So, China cannot argue that it is being forced into confrontation by adversaries that are determined to contain it. On the contrary, they are searching for a more stable and rules-based relationship with Beijing that prevents enduring ideological and value differences from getting in the way of pragmatic cooperation. At the moment it is too frequently the opposite.

So, if Beijing wants to stop further deterioration and begin repairing its relations with the Western democracies, are there things it could do? My conversations with Chinese experts made clear that we cannot expect major concessions on issues immediately linked to China’s perception of its core national identity, such as Taiwan, Hong Kong or the Uighurs, any more than we can expect the US to give up its freedom of navigation missions in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. Yet, in the area of security that we were particularly focused on, there are areas of rapprochement which imaginative diplomats in both Beijing and Western capitals could usefully exploit.

The first is Afghanistan. The US and NATO forces have begun their coordinated withdrawal from the country which is to be completed by 11 September. Yet, major issues remain unresolved, such as how the US and perhaps other allies can maintain an over the horizon presence of aircraft, drones and special forces in the region to strike back quickly at the Taliban, Al Qaeda or ISIL if they engage in terrorist activities. The US is looking at using bases like Termez in Uzbekistan, which it has been using for logistics for much of the time of its engagement in Afghanistan, or perhaps an alternative in Tajikistan. Here, Beijing could offer an olive branch to the US by being helpful with its Central Asian partners. Pakistan has already rejected a US military presence. The US is also looking at a maritime strike presence in the Indian Ocean and using its existing bases in the Gulf, such as Bahrain, although Al Udeid in Qatar could be problematic given Qatar’s role in hosting power sharing talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. China could recognise the utility of such arrangements in helping to curb a revival of the terrorist threat.

Another issue is how to train, equip and support the Afghan security forces once NATO no longer has a training presence in Afghanistan. The Alliance is looking at asking its regional partners, particularly Jordan and the Gulf states that are part of NATO’s Istanbul Cooperation Initiative to help in this regard. The NATO-ICI Regional Training Centre in Kuwait could rehouse the Afghan Training Academy in Kabul which was operated by the UK until it was handed over to the Afghans two weeks ago. Keeping the Afghan security forces operational and effective will cost large sums of money. China could offer to make a financial contribution to Kabul and donate equipment. The Afghan air force is in particular need of support too. Beijing could consider concluding a bilateral agreement with Kabul to help train its security forces or to help with its police forces. It could initiate a cross-border dialogue on terrorism threats.

It is important that China does not open a separate negotiation track

China is moreover a major economic investor in Afghanistan, for instance in the Aynak copper mines, so it has an interest in stability in the country if it is to be able to exploit Afghanistan’s abundant raw materials. Beijing could indicate its interest in improving Afghanistan’s transportation and infrastructure, particularly with links through Pakistan to ports such as Karachi or Gwadar, already connected to China’s One Belt, One Road Initiative. Afghanistan also needs help with developing its agricultural sector and telecoms. China could contribute more to regional development projects, particularly in the educational and higher education sectors, perhaps setting up a branch of a major university in Kabul as it is doing with Fudan University in Budapest. These are areas where Beijing could gain credit by showing a willingness to fill some of the economic and security vacuum, which will inevitably be left by the departing NATO forces and their ‘Afghan fatigue’ after 20 years of conflict there. Beijing could use the Shanghai Cooperation Initiative to build a framework for Afghanistan’s efforts to combat terrorism and warlordism.

China could also play a more visible diplomatic role in pushing the Taliban to enter a power sharing government and define more concretely their agenda for the future of the country with elections after a transitional period. It could help to put in place a contact group or regional framework, perhaps to guarantee Afghanistan’s status as a neutral country in the region, working with its regional partners to ensure the security and political participation of its various ethnic groups and that the country does not become a launchpad for international terrorism again. This would be a good way to make the NATO agenda overlap more with Beijing’s. It is encouraging that China is finally waking up to the consequences of the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan and has offered to host peace negotiations in Beijing. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang even recently met his Afghanistan counterpart. Yet, it is important that China does not open a separate negotiation track but integrates its efforts into the broader UN and US led framework. Beijing’s sudden willingness to play a diplomatic role, rather than focus only on its business interests, should be met with a positive response from the transatlantic allies.

A second area for a dialogue is in the area of military modernisation, doctrines, concepts, budgets and exercises. It would be useful if Beijing could send the West a signal of its readiness to hold structured strategic talks involving its defence planners and military commanders. It could also invite more Western commanders and security policy personnel to visit China to lecture at staff colleges and diplomatic academies and to hold roundtables. All on the basis that its high-level commanders will receive similar invitations to visit the US and Europe. As NATO, at its upcoming summit in mid-June, looks to engage more in the Indo-Pacific and to analyse the Chinese security challenge, it might be the best collective interlocutor for Beijing.

Despite NATO freezing its practical cooperation with Russia in the NATO-Russia Council after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, NATO authorised the Chairman of the Military Committee and the Supreme Allied Commander to maintain a hotline with Russian Chief of Defence Gerasimov to prevent dangerous incidents at sea, in the air or related to snap exercises or unusual out of garrison activities. The two most senior NATO commanders have met periodically in Kazakhstan with Gerasimov for broader discussions on mutual threat perceptions and on confidence building measures. NATO could consider a similar informal military channel with China and the future security arrangements for Afghanistan or preventing incidents during maritime deployments in the Indo-Pacific, where more European allies are now sending ships, might be good topics of mutual interest to start the dialogue on.

Next is non-proliferation and arms control. There will be intense consultation after the NATO summit on how the Allies can work together to come up with joint positions at the NPT Review Conference this autumn, and how China can work with the US and the EU to resurrect the Iran nuclear deal at the 6+1 talks in Vienna. The Biden administration has recently announced a new approach to North Korea’s nuclear programme based on a pragmatic step by step approach. Given Beijing’s particular leverage over North Korea, will it be prepared to back the new US approach? And how? There will also be interest in how China will engage the Biden administration on the post-START negotiations on strategic nuclear weapons with Russia, and at which stage of bilateral US-Russia talks on further reductions of nuclear warheads and missile delivery systems Beijing may be ready to join these talks and accept limitations on its own nuclear weapons programmes.

China should not wait for the Western allies to come up with all the answers

Space will also be a concern as China develops its own space programme with landings on the dark side of the Moon and this week on Mars. China has also developed its military capabilities in space, by testing its anti-satellite weapons for instance. So, the Allies at the summit in June will most certainly call on China to join these international non-proliferation and arms control efforts whether multilaterally through the UN or in being prepared to put its own capabilities on the negotiating table. This is a call that China can be ready for and show a willingness to put its own nuclear and conventional capabilities into international regimes that promote transparency and international verification. If this dialogue on norms proves productive, it could be extended overtime to new military technologies such as AI, cyber-security and bio-technologies.

Finally, Beijing could send a signal that its military forces are ready to work with the West on common security challenges such as safe passage on the high seas and responding to natural disasters and humanitarian crises. Counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden back in 2011-12 were perhaps a missed opportunity for NATO and the Chinese navy to work together. Yet, a new opportunity beckons. The Alliance is now taking up the security implications of global climate change as a new task and this orientation will be confirmed at the June summit. The NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, has spoken of increasing the use of green technologies in the NATO military forces and equipping them better to deal with climate driven scenarios like natural disasters and humanitarian need. President Xi of China has also staked out a leading international role ahead of the COP26 meeting in Glasgow this November in curbing carbon emissions but also in helping the more vulnerable countries improve their resilience against the impact of climate change. The US and China have managed to cooperate on climate change by signing a 600-word Joint Declaration in Shanghai recently. So here is an area where China could reach out to NATO and propose a dialogue and an exchange of experience, particularly in the military role in disaster relief and using green technologies to curb military emissions.

Chinese experts looking at NATO and its greater interest in China often adopt a wait-and-see attitude, observing what NATO is going to do and propose, before deciding how China should react. Yet, this article argues that it ‘takes two to tango’ and that China should not wait for the Western allies to come up with all the answers or to set their policy in stone before formulating its own expectations. The situation is still fluid and Beijing can and should take the initiative too.

The article indicates four areas where a Brussels-Beijing dialogue, even if exploratory and informal at first, could be productive for both sides: military hotline and incident prevention and confidence building talks; stabilising Afghanistan; climate change and humanitarian contingencies; international non-proliferation, space and new technology norms and standards in areas such as cyber-security, AI and bio-technologies.

There may be others but this would seem a realistic starting point. So, Beijing, the ball is now in your court.

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