Speech on presentation of Dutch government's China strategy

Speech on the presentation of the Dutch government's China strategy by the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stef Blok. (The Hague, 15 May 2019.

Ladies and gentlemen, ‘How afraid should we be of China?’
This was a headline in the weekend edition of a major newspaper at the end of April. It was accompanied by a drawing of a panda munching on tulips. An example of the  lack of knowledge of China – pandas are very picky eaters, who only consume the tastiest bamboo shoots.

Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with a national daily doing an in-depth story on China. But I think the paper asked the wrong question. If you ask me, ‘Should we be afraid of China?’, my answer is no.

But we have to be realistic. We have to base our policy on facts, on knowledge. Not on feelings and images. And perhaps we’ve sometimes been too innocent and credulous in the past.

I’m glad to see you all here. We had hoped to have the Chinese ambassador here too, but by pure chance, he is this morning presenting his letters of credence to the King. Of course we understand that that takes priority.

I want to cordially thank you all for your insights, ideas and input. Today, on behalf of the government as a whole, I’m sending the policy memorandum – better known as the China strategy – to the House of Representatives. It is the result of input from a wide range of parties. And that’s important – especially with a country like China, which so many Dutch people, agencies, institutions and companies have dealings with.

People have strong opinions about China. It’s a kaleidoscope, which you can see in many different ways. Everyone sees a different piece of the puzzle. The government’s aim has been to describe this kaleidoscope in detail, to make it possible to set out a range of courses of action.

Opinions about China may differ, but we can agree on one thing: no other country in the world is changing as quickly. And no other country has changed as quickly within the span of a single generation.

The Netherlands has had relations with China for centuries. I’m proud that the first Dutch person to visit China came from my hometown of Enkhuizen: Dirck Gerritszoon Pomp, in the late 16th century. This earned him the nickname ‘Dirck China’.

Today, centuries later, the Netherlands has a more extensive diplomatic network in China than in any other country. This reflects the country’s size, clout and importance.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Is it a good idea to make a strategy like this public? On the face of it, you might think not. And yet I think it’s important. We’re a democracy and as such, we value transparency, debate, freedom of expression, checks and balances and information-gathering. The strategy reflects our interests and values, our choices and considerations in relation to an important country like China. I think it’s good for the people of this country to be aware of the government’s thinking on this issue and join in the discussion. After all, China influences all of our lives.

We’ve been working on this memorandum for a long time, and a lot has been written about it. One thing you have to say is: we knew this day would come. Everyone knew the strategy was in the pipeline. Rarely has a government policy document been so widely anticipated. Some people may be disappointed that the final text isn’t more critical. Others will think the language and tone are too tough.

You won’t be surprised to hear that I, as the minister chiefly responsible for this policy, think it strikes just the right balance. That’s what this is about for us: striking a new balance.

China is a big, important country, with an age-old civilisation of which it is rightly proud. It looks out for its own interests. That’s legitimate and natural. And it’s just as legitimate and natural for the Netherlands to look out for its interests. China knows what its aims are, what it needs to do to achieve its aims, and what it wants from its partners. The question is naturally: do we know what we want? My answer is: we know it much better today than we did yesterday.

The main thing is that China is a key partner for us, one with which we work together well in a great many areas. In some other areas we need to take a more critical attitude.

I would like to stress eight points. (As you may know, in China eight is a lucky number.)
1)    Everybody benefits from free trade in a system based on law and rules. As a free-market liberal, I’m firmly convinced of this. Since China opened up its economy in 1978, its share of the world economy has grown from 1.5% to 15% (in 2017). Today the Netherlands exports goods and services to China worth €11 billion a year. These are impressive figures.

Today, however, we’re seeing a major shift. Of course there’s no question of going back to the days when diplomats thought that defending economic interests was beneath them. That’s nonsense. But defending economic interests cannot be our only concern either. It cannot be our eternal main principle. Short-term gains must not be pursued at the expense of long-term strategic interests. When we do business with China, we need to be more vigilant.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative is in essence a far-reaching form of economic diplomacy. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it mustn’t saddle countries with unsustainable debt. And countries have to preserve their independence of action.

2)    China’s role in the world. At the moment China is second only to the EU in the contribution it makes to UN peace missions. In the EU, we welcome the fact that China is taking global responsibility. The Netherlands benefits from the existing multilateral system, based on rules, law and respect. It’s entirely in our interest for the most powerful countries to commit themselves to it. We call the US to account on this point. We call China to account on this point. And in many areas, China is very much engaged. We’ve stood shoulder to shoulder with China in Mali. We’ve worked together to uphold the agreement with Iran (JCPoA). And China rarely uses its veto in the UN Security Council.

Yet we do have concerns, for example concerning issues at the WTO. And China aspires to modify the narrative of the international order by giving it ‘Chinese characteristics’. This is not in the Netherlands’ interests.

3)    Security. Another issue the Dutch government is concerned about is the many cyberattacks on companies and organisations in the Netherlands that our security services attribute to China. These infringements are of course unacceptable, and we need to defend ourselves.

More generally, we need to conduct a dialogue with China about how deal with the increasingly important cyber domain. I refer you to the annual report by our General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD): espionage, cyberattacks and involuntary knowledge transfers are all continuing causes for concern. We will remain vigilant about this danger. Clearly China is not the only country we are keeping an eye on. But like any other country, the Netherlands has a duty to protect its vital interests. In doing so, we focus on sectors, not on countries.

4)    Climate. This government set ambitious climate goals in its coalition agreement. On a global scale, China is the biggest investor in renewable energy. It is, for example, the biggest producer of electric cars. At the same time, in absolute terms, China is the biggest source of CO2 emissions.

The Netherlands and China have opportunities for closer commercial and institutional cooperation, especially on climate adaptation. China is a member of the Global Commission on Adaptation, which the Netherlands hosts. At the recent EU-China summit (on 9 April), participants stressed the absolute and urgent necessity of combating the danger of climate change.

Finally, we welcome Beijing’s decision to host the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in October 2020.

5)    Development cooperation. The figures are telling: China has lifted hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty. This is a fantastic accomplishment. In 2015 China achieved all the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which had a major impact on the global MDG results. Whereas 88% of the Chinese still lived under the poverty line in 1981, barely 30 years later, in 2012, the figure was only 6.5%.
So it’s no surprise that many poorer countries see China as an example – and as a rich uncle. This is very understandable. At first glance China seems less exacting than Western lenders. But of course, it costs money to borrow money. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. I call on China to join the EU in working for poverty reduction and better education and healthcare. As we all agreed when we adopted the 2030 Agenda (the SDGs).

6)    Human rights. Along the same lines: China has made impressive progress on socioeconomic rights. Equality between men and women. The elimination of poverty. But speaking as a liberal, I would stress that other rights are important too. We engage in critical dialogue about human rights. We call China to account about its treatment of the Uighurs, for instance. About fundamental rights in general. We speak up. As we do in Saudi Arabia, in Venezuela and in Burundi.

7)    For many developing countries, China also offers an alternative social and political model. This is a model where freedom of expression, freedom of the press and an independent judiciary are not high priorities. Europe is rightly disturbed about this. Every country that has signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should be disturbed about it. As a permanent member of the Security Council, moreover, China has a special duty to uphold human rights worldwide, as this is one of the UN’s core tasks.

8)    Knowledge exchange is a good thing. There are 4,400 Chinese students in the Netherlands, and about 1,000 young Dutch people studying in China. This helps us learn more about each other’s language, culture and history. Sharing knowledge is a great good – especially if it takes place freely.
Ladies and gentlemen,
All this has clear practical implications. We need to see China in the round. I favour situating our relationship much more in a broad ecology of interests. This means we need to boost our knowledge of China: its strategic objectives, its role in multinational systems, its actions in Africa and Latin America. So we have to invest more in knowledge and capacity. Our expertise on China must be significantly deepened and more solidly embedded in our institutional architecture.

A realistic China policy obviously requires recognising that the Netherlands on its own doesn’t have much manoeuvring room in relations with China. So it’s fortunate that we’re a member of the European Union.
Last Monday, I pleaded in Brussels for European unity vis-a-vis China.
I am happy that Jyrki Katainen, the European Commission vice-President for jobs, growth, investment and competitiveness, will visit the Netherlands tomorrow.

Economically, especially in trade policy, the EU can wield formidable power. Politically, this is not as much the case.

In relations with China and the US, in particular, individual European countries are simply too small. But by acting in concert the EU can promote all our interests and defend European values. Within this framework the Netherlands will always stay true to its principles, its interests and its values. We will continue to protect the European way of life.

Ladies and gentlemen,

To conclude: partly in keeping with the times we’re living in, the debate on China has become a debate between extreme positions. That’s unfortunate, and not very useful. One extreme position is: China is heaven for merchants, but hell for idealists. Whereas in the past we mainly saw a vast number of opportunities and few threats, today the dominant attitude has swung drastically in the opposite direction. Now – as in the newspaper headline I quoted to start with – it is the threats that are emphasised. I would like to argued for strategic nuance: working with China where we can, and safeguarding our own interests and values where we must.

Ladies and gentlemen,

China is a big, self-confident country. In dealing with it, it behoves us to be realistic about our influence. At the same time we need to act in suitable ways to promote our interests. It is imperative for us to act in concert with the EU and like-minded countries. The Dutch government is striving for engagement, protection, and reinforcement of the international system. This strategy sets the stage for our future actions. I look forward to talking soon with my counterpart in Beijing about the issues raised in the strategy.

Thank you.