In recent years, China’s state-backed interference, in the form of information manipulation, cyber operations, and economic coercion, has slowly constrained the EU’s ability to effectively safeguard its values and autonomy when dealing with China. The coronavirus crisis has made matters worse, as Chinese officials and state-affiliated media at times openly denigrated European efforts to rein in the pandemic. In addition, Chinese authorities have used divisions between the EU’s member states over rule of law issues to deepen bilateral ties to countries like Hungary and Poland. The EU has reacted in a lukewarm and erratic way, oscillating between obstinate attempts to improve EU-China trade ties and moderate human rights-related sanctions. Now, several of the bloc’s smaller member states are leading the way and are openly confronting the Chinese state on issues such as human rights, economic interests, and support for democracy.

Standing Up for Human Rights

In 2021, parliaments in the Netherlands, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, and Belgium have determined that the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang constitutes genocide. This echoes determinations that have been made in the United Kingdom, United States, and Canada. The Lithuanian Parliament went further and touched upon other sensitive issues such as Hong Kong and Tibet. The Czech Parliament’s motion called on the government to boycott the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. These resolutions have not gone unnoticed. The Chinese foreign ministry urged Lithuania to “correct its mistakes to avoid harming relations.” Meanwhile, the Belgian Parliament suffered an as of yet still unattributed cyberattack just as it was about to debate the motion on Xinjiang.

In contrast to the strong condemnation coming from some of its smaller member states, the EU has been far softer in its criticism of the Chinese government’s actions in Xinjiang. Its harshest measure to date has been the imposition of sanctions on four Chinese officials over their role in the repression of the region’s Uyghurs. Even then, the EU measure stopped short of blacklisting Xinjiang’s top official who had already been sanctioned by the United States. Despite the EU’s efforts to appear measured and proportionate, Chinese authorities reacted forcefully, imposing sanctions on ten individuals and four entities in the EU, including several members of the European Parliament (MEP). Shortly after announcing the countersanctions, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi sternly told a German audience, “Our European friends know what is genocide.”

Defending European Economic Interests

The EU’s timidity in the face of an increasingly assertive Chinese state is also apparent in the economic sphere. While the imposition of sanctions on several MEPs has halted the ratification process of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), there is still room for the agreement to be revived at some point in the future. This possibility is made even more likely by the fact that the EU’s larger member states seem wary of further alienating Chinese leaders. As recently as July 2021, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron held a conciliatory virtual meeting with President Xi Jinping.

By contrast, Lithuania has shown that other policy options are available. In May 2021, Vilnius left the Chinese-led 17+1 cooperation forum, urging other EU member states to leave this “divisive” group. The Lithuanian government emphasized the strength of a united EU and promoted the EU27+1 format as the most effective way to hold discussions with the Chinese state. In addition to Lithuania leaving for good in May, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, Estonia, and Latvia did not send their heads of state to a February 17+1 virtual gathering chaired by Xi Jinping himself. However, even among the 17+1 participants, not all EU member states agree on how to approach China. As Brussels slowly brings rule of law issues to the forefront, leaders in Hungary and Poland are leaning into their relations with Beijing.

Supporting Fellow Democracies

The EU’s smaller member states have gone even further by openly supporting democracies that are under pressure from Chinese authorities. In June and July 2021, Lithuania, Slovakia, and Czech Republic announced they would be donating tens of thousands of coronavirus vaccine doses to Taiwan. This followed similar pledges made by the United States and Japan. The statements from Lithuania, Slovakia, and Czech Republic appealed to the universal value of freedom and pointed to Taiwan’s help in donating face masks when the pandemic began in 2020. These vaccine donations will help a democracy that has been divided over whether to accept Chinese-made vaccines, afraid doing so might harm the island’s sovereignty.

The European Commission did issue a press release to support the delivery of vaccine donations from its member states to countries outside of the EU, including those to Taiwan. However, the EU’s lack of resolve to stand up to Chinese assertiveness is all too apparent when compared to Beijing’s singling out of some of its member states over their support for Taiwanese democracy. For instance, when Chinese officials issued a strong warning over Lithuania and Taiwan’s decision to set up new offices in their respective capitals using the Taiwan name, the EU failed to denounce what constitutes a clear interference into one of its member states’ foreign policy. Even now that the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has decided to expel the Lithuanian ambassador from Beijing and recall its own ambassador from Vilnius, Brussels’ reaction remains subdued, with a spokeswoman for the EU’s diplomatic body simply expressing “regret [for] the Chinese action.”

On a whole host of issues ranging from human rights in Xinjiang, to the economic risks arising from initiatives like the 17+1 mechanism, to support for democracies under authoritarian pressure such as Taiwan, smaller EU member states like Lithuania are showing a stronger commitment to democratic values than the bloc as a whole. With the EU currently considering whether, and how, to review its China strategy, now may be the time to take stock of Beijing’s more confrontational attitude and put more substance behind the assessment that the current Chinese government constitutes a “systemic rival.” At the very least, the EU should clearly and explicitly stand by all its members when the world’s largest authoritarian state threatens them over their support for democracy.

The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.