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Mission Implausible
Europe's furor about "Chinese espionage" stems from U.S. pressure
By Wen Qing  ·  2019-02-18  ·   Source: NO. 8 FEBRUARY 21, 2019

A visitor holds a work of Chinese calligraphy at a Chinese zodiac exhibition at the China Cultural Center in Brussels on February 4. It reads Dan Ding, which means to calm down (XINHUA)

There is an old saying in China, "Do not beat the grass if you want to catch the snake." It is applicable to spies as well. Like the snake in the grass, secret agents spying in foreign countries should never be alarmed unless there is incontrovertible proof to convict them. Otherwise, they will simply disappear instead of being caught.

In principle, it's simple to understand. However, in reality, things are not so simple.

Recently, there has been a furor about "Chinese espionage" in some European countries. According to a report in Germany's Welt am Sonntag newspaper on February 9, the European External Action Service (EEAS) has warned that there are hundreds of Russian and Chinese intelligence agents operating in Brussels.

According to the report, the EEAS estimates there are "about 250 Chinese and 200 Russian spies in the European capital." Diplomats and military officials have been reportedly advised to avoid certain parts of Brussels' European quarter, including a popular steakhouse and a cafe near the European Commission's main building.

Also, a few days ago, Lithuania added China to its list of national threats and warned of "increasingly aggressive Chinese spying" on its soil. In the annual National Threat Assessment 2019 report, Lithuanian intelligence agencies accused China of launching "increasingly aggressive" espionage campaigns, spy recruitments and the use of tech companies as surveillance assets.

"As Chinese economic and political ambitions grow in Lithuania and other NATO and EU countries, activities of the Chinese intelligence and security services become increasingly aggressive," the State Security Department and the Second Investigation Department said, as per the Baltic News Network.

Clearly, European countries are obsessed with spy conspiracies. If the allegations were true, it would have been more logical for the supposedly spied-on countries to directly block the espionage activities to defend national interests. Instead, they have simply chosen to spout off allegations, mostly via the media.

Behind the spy mania

According to analysts, the reason is quite simple. It is just another round of groundless accusations hyping up the "China threat" theory, the objective being to consolidate the EU-U.S. bond against the current China-U.S. tensions. Europe's fears and suspicions about China's rapid development have also fanned these flames. However, at a time when their old ally is infatuated with the America First policy, European leaders should consider their long-term interests while making policies.

"The reality behind the spy mania is that European countries are facing more pressure from the United States to unify in order to contain China," Zhang Jian, a researcher on European studies with the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations in Beijing, told Beijing Review. "Beijing is projected as a strategic competitor by Washington. Against the background of Sino-U.S. trade tensions, the United States is further pressuring its European allies to follow its steps to restrain China, especially regarding 5G telecom technology."

The pressure is blatant. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo undertook a five-nation tour in Europe recently, during which he threatened to scale back certain operations in Europe if those countries continued to do business with Chinese telecom company Huawei. According to Associated Press, Pompeo said in Budapest that nations would have to choose between Huawei and the United States.

For some European countries, the stability of their alliance with the United States is perhaps more crucial to them. "By hyping up the so-called Chinese spy allegations they have catered to the United States, trying to consolidate the alliance with Washington," Zhang said.

This explains why Lithuania placed China, a remote country over 6,000 km away, on its list of threats along with its immediate neighbor Russia, for the first time since its independence in the early 1990s. Due to its feud with Russia, Lithuania has been desperate to make Washington keep its security commitment. In November 2002, when then U.S. President George W. Bush gave a speech in the city hall in Lithuanian capital Vilnius, he famously said, "Anyone who would choose Lithuania as an enemy has also made an enemy of the United States of America."

Since the European debt crisis in 2009, the power of Europe has been waning while China's national strength has increased. Along with rapid development, many Chinese companies have become more competitive in the international market. This reality is hard to accept by many European countries, Jin Ling, an associate researcher on EU foreign policy with the China Institute of International Studies, told Beijing Review.

Like the United States, some other countries have also blacklisted Huawei "essentially because of strategic consideration, rather than national security," Jin said. "Securitization of non-security issues is just for creating more hype."

China's presence in Europe has become stronger in recent years. While some interpret this as China's increasing influence in this region, many mistake influence as espionage, Zhang said. "It is important for European countries to distinguish normal Chinese activities from the so-called prying," he said.

Long-term gains

The allegations have cast a shadow on Sino-EU relations. "European countries could have conducted a higher level of cooperation with China," Zhang said. How should China respond? In his opinion, China should enhance communication with European countries to strengthen mutual understanding and promote objective and fair treatment by them.

European countries, on their part, should adjust their mentality to adapt to the changing China, especially given the fact that China's giant market offers multiple opportunities. "European countries should adjust their attitude and conduct closer cooperation with China, which will be beneficial to both," Zhang said.

However, as another Chinese saying goes, the trees prefer calm but the wind will not subside. Jin feels what China can do is limited. As the Sino-U.S. trade negotiation continues, will European countries continue to dance to the U.S. tune calling for suppressing China? In Jin's opinion, "It depends on how they balance their short-term and long-term interests."

In the short term, staying with the United States might be in their interest. Besides their alliance, their similar cultural and historical links have strengthened their bond. "Moreover, some countries might have gained from the Sino-U.S. trade tensions as some trade went to their companies," she said. "However, they would suffer if there is a trade decoupling between China and the United States and a segmentation of the global value and supply chains."

In the long term, the disparity in their strategic considerations might finally drive the EU and the United States apart. "The unilateralism and trade protectionism preached by the United States go against the long-term interests of Europe as the EU pursues an open global market and multilateralism. To attain that goal, EU countries must closely cooperate with China," Jin said.

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

Comments to wenqing@bjreview.com

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