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China's Huge Strategic Blunder: Retaliating on Europe

China miscalculated. 
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In the hierarchy of mistakes—snafu, shitshow, clusterfuck—China’s handling of its ties with Europe lingers somewhere in between shitshow and clusterfuck. But what’s clear is that it made such a “huge strategic blunder” when it retaliated on Europe.

Cletel Wilems, a former top trade negotiator for the White House, explained to CNBC how China gravely miscalculated and made a “huge strategic blunder” when it decided in March 2021 to impose sanctions on 10 EU politicians, think tanks, and diplomatic bodies. The move was China’s reaction to Western powers imposing sanctions against Chinese officials accused of the mass detentions of Muslim Uyghurs in northwestern China. 

More: China's International Reputation Takes a Beating as E.U. Stands Up for the Philippines

“It does show that with China, it is overreaching and overreacting and not addressing legitimate issues like forced labor,” said Wilems in the interview.

But the European Union was having none of China’s political tantrums. In a sweeping move, the European Parliament put into deep freeze Europe’s economic agreements with China until the country lifts the sanctions on the European statesmen. Nevermind that the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment took seven years of negotiations, and was finally approved by both sides in December 2020. 

According to Wilems, China’s retaliation killed a major economic and investment deal between it and the European Union, and said the investment was “off the table now,” Willems told CNBC.

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Europe's asymmetrical response probably caught China by surprise. It was comparable to bringing missiles to face an opponent wielding a pistol. After all, China's sanctions on the 10 European statesmen and four institutions were rather symbolic than punitive.

"The individuals concerned and their families are prohibited from entering the mainland, Hong Kong and Macao of China. They and companies and institutions associated with them are also restricted from doing business with China," wrote China's Foreign Ministry. 

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The EU-China deal would have leveled the playing field for EU companies doing business in China, and would have also allowed the companies greater access to the Chinese market. On the other hand, the deal would have also given China more access to the 27-member bloc, which is considered the world’s most powerful and influential political and economic bloc that has not been replicated anywhere else.

But at the center of the debacle are the Uyghurs, an ethnic group that has swayed the entire Western world’s opinions about—and trade deals—with China.

Who are the Uyghurs?

The Uyghurs are a predominantly Muslim and Turkic ethnic group that consider the Xinjiang region in northern China their homeland. China has been accused of committing genocide on the Uyghur populations, and has been widely criticized for its persecution of the ethnic group. 

An Uyghur Muslim woman at a food market in Kashgar, China (September 14, 2013).

An Uyghur Muslim woman at a food market in Kashgar, China (September 14, 2013).
Photo by The Road Provides | Shutterstock.
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On June 4, 2021, some of the world’s most accomplished human rights lawyers descended on London to begin trials on the Uyghur genocide. The Uyghur Tribunal is an independent court assembled by human rights lawyers and international law experts. It heard dozens of harrowing accounts over four days from the Uyghurs.

According to the Washington Post, the Uyghur Tribunal is the most comprehensive public airing of evidence of China’s alleged abuses of its minority groups, which not only includes Uyghurs, but also Kazakhs and Muslim minorities residing in the countryside. 

Prior to the tribunal, the U.S., Canada, and U.K. accused China of putting the Uyghurs in mass detention camps and internment camps where they are sterilized. 

China’s Foreign Ministry dismissed the claims as “nothing but lies and disinformation, disregards and distorts facts, grossly interferes in China's internal affairs,” it wrote.

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Mario Alvaro Limos
Features Editor, Esquire Philippines
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