The EU stands in an unenviable position: unite against China or face the consequences of its increasing domination.

Labels are a funny thing. Just as the ‘Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’ and the ‘National Socialist German Workers’ Party’ appear deliberately oxymoronic, the same can be said of the ‘People’s Republic of China’ and its ‘one party socialist republic’. With torture for dissidence considered ‘widespread’ by Amnesty International, a quasi-dictatorship of Xi Jinping has been described by Freedom House as authoritarian and repressive, including its concentrated efforts to either exploit or eradicate the Uighur Muslim community. Resultantly, activists and analysts demand China’s accountability as it makes its bid for sole superpower.

But who’s going to do it?

The European Union, for one. Often considered one of the leading examples of democracy and freedom, the EU bloc will be expected to curb the dominance of China, with good reason. This is a matter of scale. Independent nations can only do so much.

Difficulties faced by independent governments offer little deterrence to the European Union. The EU can implement widespread change through the use of regulations, contained in Article 288 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. A passed regulation binds and applies to all member states. There are also directives, which have a similar effect but allow individual member states to implement the legislation in their own idiosyncratic manner. Use of regulations and directives will be vital for the passing of encompassing legislation to ensure continental cyber security is up to date.

Gone are the days of land warfare between developed nations, and as seen from China’s varyingly covert belligerence towards its opponents, cyber defense is a must. In 2018, the US Department of Justice announced two Chinese hackers were associated with the official Chinese government. Meanwhile, this June, Australia suffered a large-scale cyber-attack, and although not officially accredited to the Chinese government, it occurred in the midst of thorny relations. Since then, Australia has committed to investing $1 billion towards cyber security.

Utilising existing strengths

Antagonism of this scale has not been seen since the Cold War, but technological developments of the 21st century make this escalating conflict all the more intimidating.

The EU also needs to utilise the advantage of being able to rely more on insular trade, meaning it does not have to be susceptible to trade disputes with China the way individual nations can be. But that is not to say the EU can suspend all trade with China overnight. China remains the EU’s second largest inter-trade partner. According to the 2019 European Commission report on the ‘Client and Supplier Countries of the EU27 in Merchandise Trade’, the EU’s largest current account deficit was actually with China.

As a solution, the EU may wish to decrease its reliance by basing sources of production and manufacturing in poorer European economies such as Greece, or Eastern economies like Romania and the Baltics. This would essentially provide the EU with its own trading milieu — becoming a notable exception to North America and Japan as well as non-EU European economies. Under no circumstances would the EU escape a trading dispute with China unscathed, but to dramatically reduce economic reliance would also reduce the aftermath of any subsequent fallout.

China’s rise to economic powerhouse has been met with frequent criticism directed towards the practice of steel dumping. Here, China overwhelmed the global market with state-subsidized steel at prices so low, they could not feasibly be competed with, thus strengthening its existing market dominance. In early 2020, the EU finally introduced import tariffs on Chinese steel wheels, but the robustness of the Chinese economy comes from its multifaceted sources of productivity and, due to the prevalence of state ownership of industries, the suspicion of exaggerated official figures. Hence, the European bloc must push back as one collective unit.

A fragile unity?

However, a significant amount of any EU efforts to combat China’s climb to sole superpower relies on a unity that is not yet guaranteed. To operate as a united front, the EU cannot continue to be ignorant of the growth of attacks on fundamental EU principles from individual member states. Amongst these is Poland’s attack on judicial independence and the rule of law and Bulgaria’s startling deficient (worldwide!) freedom of press.

The EU will also need to enforce its principles on any prospective member states. The European Commission has long considered Serbia a frontrunner for EU membership. However, the recent Serbian election, boycotted by the majority of the nation’s political parties has resulted in the near-absolute ascension of the Serbian Progressive Party amidst damning accusations that the result spat in the face of democracy. Each of these individual faults and worries possess a volatility that has the potential to weaken the EU from within, undermine any concentrated effort in the name of unity, and distract it from the malignant growth of a far worse threat. It is harder to deal with the hostility of a neighbour when there is ample hostility already on your own doorstep.

The European Union has a lot of decisions to make over the next few years. A central one is whether it will go beyond passiveness in response to China’s growing shadow. Totalitarianism silences its victims, so it is a matter of the utmost morality that the EU uses its voice to actively condemn the new tyrant. For certain, it must prepare for the not insignificant possibility that it finds itself the lone soldier willing to compete with the Chinese behemoth.

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