• Florian Sittler

Opinion: China-US/EU sanctions

Last week the EU, the UK, and Canada have joined the US in a new wave of sanctions against high ranking Chinese officials; thus, following a trend in modern international politics. Sanctions as a tool of statecraft have gained popularity over the years. However, the outcomes of such sanctions often differ from what was originally intended. Consequently, there is reason to doubt their efficacy when trying to influence domestic practices. To fully understand the newest wave of sanctions against the People’s Republic of China (PRC) we have to consider them in their context with Sino- Western relations and domestic politics. While the newest sanctions are considered a direct reaction to the human rights infringements on Uyghur minorities around Xinjiang, there have been many more concerns regarding the PRC policies from Hong Kong to illegal fishing activities in the pacific and territorial claims in the Chinese Sea. Trump’s presidency has made it clear; the PRC and the West are on confronting paths. The West, whatever this term may mean in the future, will eventually have to make a decision regarding its stance on the PRC and seek out allies.


Just recently French President Emmanuel Macron was handed the damning results of the Rwanda report which confirmed France’s responsibility, at least in part, for the genocide which occurred in the mid-1990s in the African state of Rwanda. Despite clear warning signs and little to stop a possible intervention, the Western powers watched the massacre unfold. Almost 30 years later some countries have developed a higher sensitivity to the term genocide. It has become a buzzword to incite outrage and gain international attention. After all, it is a crime punishable by international law as stated in the UN’s convention on genocide prevention. It is established as the most heinous crime committable in international law. Consequently, many were disappointed when no state officially adopted the term to describe the mistreatment of Uyghurs in China. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on his last day in office, was the first official of the Western powers to denounce the PRC’s actions as genocide and left the fallout of the statement to the Biden administration to deal with. Biden’s Secretary of State Anthony Blinken maintained this rhetoric and supported the most recent wave of sanctions against Chinese diplomats. Canada, the UK, and the EU followed suit issuing additional sanctions. However, their justification was toned down to ‘human rights infringements’ (possibly to still save the upcoming trade agreement between the PCR and the EU.)


By condemning the PRC as a perpetrator of genocide, the US has steered into treacherous waters. Given the severity of such an accusation, one would expect the strongest possible response or else the concept of genocide in jus cogens in international law will lose significance as no customary background can be established. We now have to ask ourselves; are those haphazard sanctions on some officials the most a nation as powerful as the US can do to accompany such an accusation? So far, these sanctions and similar ones put on Russia several years ago have not only failed to achieve any of their resolutions but have also strengthened the bond between Russia and the PRC. Any actual relief for the victims of the PRC’s Uyghur is yet to be discussed.


It should be obvious that sanctions of any nature must be multilateral and upheld by a significant portion of the international community, otherwise, it will not be the target that is being isolated in the long run but rather the sanctioning state(s). More crucially, the West has to come together and devise creative options to resolve what they see as the problem. And therein lies the crux. In a post-Trump/Brexit world plagued by vaccine-nationalism, the West is as divided as ever. Combined with the mixed economic interest of the individual states, it is difficult to declare a common goal regarding the PRC. Whether this be the protection of human rights within the PRC or aspirations to limit the PRC’s power and global influence; before measures can be taken some frontiers will inevitably have to be drawn.

A united approach could not only expand sanctions further but also utilise more diplomatic brainpower and economic leverage to balance the scales. So far, most attempts to deal with the PRC have been poorly coordinated and more often than not either proven to be either ineffective or harmful to both sides. However, there are more creative ways of engaging with the PRC.


For example, rather than trying to pressure internal factors, the PRC’s international ambitions could be threatened to create a bargaining chip. And the PRC has plenty of ambitions. Just two examples of them being the Belts and Roads Initiative (BRI) and the idea of ‘reintegrating’ Taiwan. Both undertakings are very complex and thus vulnerable to foreign intervention. This may be used by any alliance against the PRC. By offering alternatives and better financial incentives as well diplomatic support it might be possible to turn many of the already disgruntled BRI receivers against the PRC and limit its influence on smaller Asian states. Furthermore, it could greatly damage Chinese banks which have already invested large sums of money into these projects. Another option to engage with the Communist Party could be to strengthen ties with Taiwan to threaten the party’s expansionist plans. President Trump’s arms deals totalling roughly seven billion USD has revealed the PRC’s sensibility regarding Taiwan’s defensive capacities.


In summary, there is much that could be done to pressure the PRC and establish boundaries on an international level which may, later on, be used to lobby for human rights within the country. However, nothing will be achieved until a new alliance has been formed on common grounds to deal with the threats the PRC poses. The more nations join this alliance, the more effective it will be. It cannot only be the EU, the UK, Canada, and the US. The Quad as well as Brazil (the PRC’s largest supplier of food) should be urged to join the cause. That is of course if a solid common cause can be found. Currently, very little is being achieved. The US has created precedence of failure of international law by invoking genocide without introducing any meaningful measures to accompany the claim and the rest of the coalition has followed in its steps rather than seeking for imaginative solutions to a problem most have yet to fully define.