Rogelja & Tsimonis: Presenting China as an existential threat further deprioritizes ‎human rights (interview)‎

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Researchers Igor Rogelja and Konstantinos Tsimonis have recently published an article “Narrating the China Threat: Securitising Chinese Economic Presence in Europe” in the Chinese Journal of International Politics. In their study, Rogelja and Tsimonis analyzed the process in which Chinese activities are being securitized in the EU. In this interview conducted by Richard Q. Turcsányi, the two authors explain their findings and what they mean for the future of Europe – China relations.


Can you briefly sum up your main argument? What do you want your readers to take away from your paper?

Igor: The main thing that I want a reader to remember is that the whole “China threat scenario” rests on a simple assertion that China is an existential threat. This assertion rests on certain assumptions, misrepresentations, or sometimes facts. We wanted to draw attention to some of the problematic components and practices of Europe’s perceptions about China. For example, with the Covid-19 pandemic, we have seen rising racism against Asian people in general across the world. These are the kinds of elements of this discourse that have been present in certain, though not all, writings about China.

Konstantinos: Methodologically, we argue in favor of adopting a case-by-case analytical approach rather than just stepping back from individual cases and looking solely at the ‘big picture’, what many of the examined reports do. We argue that the way individual cases are being (often mis-) represented has a direct impact on the big picture. So, yes to trying to make sense of the big picture, but we need to get the details of the individual cases of Chinese investments right first. 

“There is a border between a legitimate conversation about challenges and threats and saying that everything that China does is somehow an existential threat to Europe or the US.”

You mentioned that your article wants to discuss the debate on China as an existential threat. Can you briefly say how we should treat China? Is China an existential threat or not?

Igor: I do not think that China is an existential threat. I think climate change is an existential threat, not a Chinese company obtaining plans to build a certain Italian speed boat, which was one of the cases that we came across. But it does not mean that we should not talk and worry about certain things.

Our article is about defining a line between moral panic and a legitimate conversation about challenges and threats to certain companies that emerge from the competition. There is a border between that and saying that everything that China does or everything that Chinese actors do is somehow an existential threat to Europe or the US.

Konstantinos: The tendency to present China as an existential threat prompted us to write the article. We decided to examine this leap in perception, presenting China as not just ‘at the gates of Europe’, but ‘already in Europe’, as one of the reports claims. We found particularly problematic the securitization process that leads to identifying China as an existential threat.

What responses have you received to your article? Do you think that lot of these responses misunderstood you in a way?

Konstantinos: We have received more endorsement and support than criticism. The comment that I appreciated the most was from one of the three anonymous peer reviewers, who said that regardless of whether you agree or not with its conclusions, the article is well researched and will spark a much-needed debate. I think this is all we can hope for.

Igor: Some of the criticism that we have received was quite shallow and short, dismissing concepts like othering as academic mumbo jumbo, as something that is not relevant in “the real world”. But I have not seen anyone questioning our methodology or arguments. People have been asking for more information about what we do. For example, when they have a legitimate concern, like how do we approach this without falling into a trap of being either China-threat or pro-China or whatever it may be. So, I think the responses have been quite encouraging.

Some claim that certain European think tanks and media are pro-China and financed by China. Your article suggests something opposite, that European think tanks might be anti-China. Now I understand this is very simplistic and this is probably what you want to avoid, but how is it really, then?

Igor: We are not saying that all European think tanks are anti-China or pro-China. I want to avoid this kind of polarized debate. We tried to point out that there is a China threat scenario that has emerged, and many think tanks argue for a more hawkish approach to China, and this can inform a joint EU policy. However, above all, I think securitization as an idea explains the creation of the China threat narrative and the consequences of such a narrative. And I think the polarization between pro- and anti- are consequences of this type of debate where you have to prove loyalty to one or the other side. I would strongly reject this kind of division where I would have to classify myself as pro- or anti-China.

We chose to look at think tanks which have been mentioned by the European Parliament research service. We started from that, and so we did not cherry-pick. That selection was made for us essentially. We just wanted to look at how these think tanks talked about China in terms of the threat that it may present.

Konstantinos: Some (very few) people have criticized and even tried to present us as being pro-CCP. However, I hope that most will carefully read our article and respond in a meaningful manner. But your question touches upon the important issue of intentionality. Why do certain think tanks engage in securitization? We explicitly avoid this question in the article because it is methodologically not necessary for this kind of discourse analysis. I assume that some think tanks have fallen in the trap of becoming ‘policy shops’ and tailor their outputs to fit into the dominant narrative of political trends to attract funding and / or attention.  I dare say that this is not too different from what Chinese think tanks are doing. So, you sense what the policymakers want to hear and you just say it in your authoritative capacity. The problem, of course, is not only why they do it; it is how they do it. And that is the focus of our article.

You mentioned the concept of securitization. Your article criticizes the securitization of Chinese economic activities in Europe. Some might say that there is a reason why this kind of process is ongoing, and there are some legitimate security worries, which are related to Chinese economic activities in Europe. More particularly, you criticize the notion that all Chinese actors are somehow coordinated. Yet even if they are not coordinated, they might bring some security worries. Can you highlight the other side of this? What is your perspective about these actual threats or security worries, which have been caused by China in general or Chinese actors in particular?

Igor: There are good reasons to worry about Chinese economic activities in Europe. In our other articles, we work on other points, such as their environmental record and labor rights. There are also some other concerns about why Europe is relatively uncompetitive. All the innovation is seemingly happening in the US and China. For instance, why was the iPhone not invented in Europe? However, securitization is something else. It implies that there is a geostrategic risk. It introduces the element of enmity.

The EU is the guardian of the union’s external trade, it’s a global regulatory superpower. It should take a hard line on those who break the rules, whether this is Google or Huawei. Those are the actual security worries. I do think there are some security worries, but they are not specifically Chinese. We have seen the sorts of surveillance scandals coming from the US and others. So clearly, some things should be entrusted to intelligence services to protect national and Union interests.

Regarding Chinese economic activities in Europe, I would be more worried about other things, such as how Chinese state-owned enterprises operate. There is a moral hazard supported by Chinese state banks who do not always run proper risk assessment studies. Sometimes, capital can be allocated quite irrationally without considering the costs and benefits. The links that exist with local elites can lead to malfeasance, corrupt practices, lack of transparency, and non-transparent contracts that favor Chinese SOEs.

The legitimate security concern is probably on technology transfers and copyright infringement. But I think there is a way to handle this without saying all Chinese economic presence is somehow dangerous. We are arguing against this generalization. We are not saying that there is no scope for German intelligence services to worry about Huawei investments. They are there to evaluate the risk. But saying that any Chinese investment is potentially dangerous, and the constant use of this word “potential”, “potentially”, “the potential risk” – this is what bothers me. There is no real evidence. You are just assuming, and this is where we want to draw the line.

Konstantinos: I think that much of this securitization effort relies on the idea that Chinese SOEs are the tentacles of the Chinese Communist Party. It is easy to come up with vague malign motives behind the conduct of Chinese companies once you adopt this stance. Yet existing research on the decision-making processes behind initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative shows that it is not accurate.

It goes without saying that European civil society, politicians, intelligence services, etc. all have to examine certain investments. For instance, expanding digital infrastructure or opening up telecommunications to non-European companies needs scrutiny. But there is a big difference between scrutinizing something and presenting it as an invasion. For example, I have read so much nonsense about COSCO and Piraeus – that it is going to be a double-use port sustaining the PLA Navy’s military operations and that it is an example of how China takes over a European country and undermines its sovereignty. Such statements have nothing to do with reality.

Igor: I think those of us who study China understand how things work. There is a central plan, and certain incentives come from the center. However, a lot of implementation and variation comes from other subnational actors, particularly the SOEs. Sometimes the SOEs act in highly opportunistic ways that defy or complicate China’s strategic interests. For instance, we saw this in countries such as Myanmar, the Maldives, Tonga. And in Southeast European countries, the SOEs are particularly interested in coal, but I think this kind of association of Chinese money with non-environmental practices will not benefit China’s global image. Hence, sometimes decentralization creates problems as these actors go off-script and do their thing.

Konstantinos: We are getting into a complicated “chicken and the egg” kind of situation. Is it the SOEs that brought China in certain countries or did China send the SOEs there? The only way to assess that is to delve into the details of specific cases, identify the key actors involved, and trace the process of entry of a Chinese company. Then, one needs to look at how a certain investment developed and to what extent there was a central plan (directed from Beijing) or not, if the SOE ‘pulled’ the Chinese state in the country, etc.

“There are good reasons to worry about Chinese economic activities in Europe. We are not arguing that we should give Huawei a free pass, not at all.”

One short follow up question. I realized this goes beyond your article, but I am interested in discussing the implications of your point. What would you say about European investment screenings? What is your position on investment screening? Is that a good thing? Did it go too far? Or would you even say it should go further?

Konstantinos: Well, I do think we need investment screening. But the question is what exactly needs to be screened. The current mechanism focuses on security and public order. But things like the impact of investment on environmental and labor standards, on compliance or business integrity, are left out. There is no screening on these aspects which are crucial for European societies and host states. All these are immensely important issues that need to be appropriately and effectively screened—taking into consideration the various characteristics of different countries and economic sectors.

Igor: What I find puzzling about this is that if we look at the kind of investments that are being problematized often in media, think tank discourse, would the current investment screening mechanism have prevented them or not? And on what grounds? For example, let’s take the COSCO Piraeus deal. Could this current investment screening mechanism even catch this particular investment? I think it could not because the way it is written emphasizes clear security concerns or public order.

We know the way it was negotiated; it was of course in this typical EU way of finding the lowest common denominator. So, I think it is a sort of gesture politics. But I am just wondering, what kind of investments would they have prevented had it existed 10, 15 years ago?

One of the things linked to this discussion of investment screening mechanism is Huawei and the 5G. How would your thinking be applied to this particular case of Huawei’s participation in 5G? From a non-tech perspective, it is a very strategic and political thing. We are talking about potentials because it is very difficult to see things, but then it can have quite far-fledged implications.

Konstantinos: It is impossible to grasp the Huawei case without understanding the technical aspects of it. Any big country, like Russia, the US, or China, can launch advanced-level strategic hacking operations. You cannot really protect yourself against them. However, there are technical ways to avoid a “routine” hack of a telecommunications network. People in the industry have told me that there are technical solutions for a country or an organization using Huawei technology to protect itself, but this is not something I can argue with confidence.

Igor: There are two things here. One, if the investment screening had existed before, what could it have prevented? My understanding is that in many ways, a lot of what we fear could happen has already happened. Many mobile phone operators in Europe outsourced certain maintenance functions to Chinese companies ages ago. Secondly, I would approach the Huawei case as a question of market access reciprocity. You could talk about the fact that you have a Chinese private company with strong state links, generously welcomed into the big consumer market of Europe, and also about the fact that European companies constantly have problems fully accessing this sector because it has been off-limits to them for a long time.

I understand there are concerns about handing over a system as crucial as telecommunications to a potential enemy foreign power. The problem with a lot of these conversations however is that the imagined worst-case scenarios are so bad that they dominate the discussion. Yet these arguments sometimes obscure the real conversation we should be having. In the case of the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station being constructed in the UK for instance, the media often present it as a Chinese nuclear power station, even though the main investor is a French company. The worst-case scenario fear was that somebody could press a button in Beijing and the whole thing would blow up. Instead, I think the real conversation here is how this might be a colossal waste of public money. The kind of question we should focus on is how this was agreed upon without adequate oversight and the fact that the energy company, EDF, is going to overcharge British consumers for electricity.

But, something like Huawei, it should be looked at. I think neither of us is arguing that we should give Huawei a free pass, not at all.

Konstantinos: The main question here is whether we can – and if yes, then how – regulate the services of Huawei. This is a discussion that needs to be driven by technical experts.

“As we try to contain China, we give the CCP exactly the kind of nationalist propaganda they need to rally support.”

How would you suggest scholars navigate the domestic political context of China and avoid the polarization of discourse on China, in order to approach the ‘China subject’ critically? The EU has said China is a systemic rival. Some readers may say that in your article you are defending China. As scholars, how can we make sure our arguments are not misinterpreted or misused, for instance by China? 

Igor: This is a difficult question. With this article, we were concerned about ending up as some sort of ‘useful idiots’ to the Communist Party of China (CCP). I think the best way to avoid this is to be specific and focus on areas that we as scholars have expertise in. As scholars, we have the luxury to reply with detail; to digress and add footnotes. This is what we should be doing more of. Of course, the danger is that we do not engage with broader debates and only study our own fields.

In terms of our motivations, Konstantinos and I started this because we are teachers and we have a lot of Chinese students. The tightening of the political situation in China and the ‘China threat response’ has had a negative impact on people in Europe, especially Chinese nationals. As scholars, we focus on our areas of expertise, but we should also support those groups that we know and feel are being wronged by the direction of the China discussion.

Konstantinos: I think it is clear that China has become even more dictatorial under Xi Jinping. We are very concerned about developments in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Chinese society in general. But presenting China as an existential threat for Europe (or the ‘West’ in general) cuts off any avenue for engagement and dialogue, and in effect further deprioritizes human rights as a topic in Sino-European relations. It also allows the CCP to present any kind of criticism as being ‘anti-China’.

So, when we talk about whether Huawei will be able to spy on us, security concerns deprioritize all other important things that should exist in an agenda of Sino-European relations. Elsewhere, I have pointed to the many injustices of the Chinese political system. In this article, we have criticized the persistent use of an exaggerated threat perception against China that can have all sorts of harmful implications.

I remember how frustrated I was when a couple of years ago I read the GPPi and MERICS report. I proposed to Igor to write a response and that slowly evolved into this article. I have much higher standards for European actors and think-tanks than I do for Chinese think-tanks. So, I felt we needed to be thorough in unpacking the China threat discourse and go after certain assumptions that have somehow been normalized. At the end of the day, we need to be truthful and stick to the facts. That is what we have to do as academics.

So basically, what you are saying is that Europe may somehow be exaggerating in its response to the China challenge. There is a popular perception that being tough on China is the only way we can make China respond and that if you are ‘nice’, they would not act. Do you think the EU response to China actually matters?

Konstantinos: There is a basic dichotomy here: do we contain China, or do we engage China? I think there is no other way but engagement, and engagement does not mean ‘being nice’. Engagement means using carrots, but also using sticks when necessary. Europe can bring back the issue of human rights on its political agenda with China while continuing and deepening its trade and business relations. It is clear that as we try to contain China, we give the CCP exactly the kind of nationalist propaganda it needs to rally support domestically. I do not expect that engagement will lead to a peaceful evolution or democratization, but I believe that we need to rethink engagement with China in a way that we can bring all important matters back on the table.        

Igor: Konstantinos and I are not sure if we agree on the idea of systemic rivalry. China may be a systemic rival of some sort to Europe, but it does not have to be one in the existential sense. Ultimately, you have only two choices – engagement or containment. Containment, practically speaking, would be difficult and probably ineffective. It also gives in to an exclusionary logic that in order to ‘defeat’ China we must become like China and have one voice. This is deeply flawed.

In terms of the previous question on who I think I am helping, I think I am helping the West more by supporting transparency and openness. At the same time, these values also allow some access for Chinese propaganda. It also means accepting that there will be protests by nationalist students in front of LSE saying that Taiwan is a part of China. These are risks that we should be taking on board.

Engagement is not going to be easy and it does not have to be about always catering to Chinese needs. For example, one concern is how to protect the European industry, institutions, and NGOs from pressure exerted by the Chinese state. We have seen the concerted pressure by the Chinese state in academia as well. I would say, let’s have a discussion about mechanisms that can support and protect European entities against such pressure.

Konstantinos: Being tough on China is more of a discursive practice—a ‘revolutionary exercise’. The securitizing discourse is actually killing a very serious agenda that we should be developing with China and with Chinese SOEs. There are huge issues of compliance in Europe that we need to address. If instead of doing that, we write reports on the imminent invasion of Europe by an imaginary Mongolian Horde, then we really miss the point and the very real threats that we should be concentrating on.

What do you think Europe should do? What would be the most effective way forward?

Konstantinos: I think Europe needs to regulate investments better. I do not see China as a rival, but more of a complicated partner in some aspects and a competitor in others.

Igor: I would welcome a mechanism that supports and protects what we value in Europe, from academic publishing to openness at universities. This can be done without actually vilifying Chinese nationals that live in Europe and use European services.

Konstantinos: I think that if we fall into the trap of internalizing the view of ‘China as a threat’, we will end up creating a rival. I find it perplexing how the anti-China camp in Europe groups together progressives that I can relate to, with hard-liners and ultra-conservatives that I keep a good distance from. To the former I say, if you find yourselves making the same arguments as US republicans and alt-right supporters, then you are doing something wrong.

Do you expect the China threat discourse to grow during the coronavirus epidemic? What do you think are prospects for the future?

Igor: We are now discussing whether to call the coronavirus the “Wuhan Virus”. This kind of discussion is the result of an extreme politicization of the issue. There are important implications to be considered here. It is hard to predict how this will play out, but I am mainly concerned about the impact this has on Chinese nationals in Europe, and people of Chinese or East Asian descent who are at the receiving end of prejudice.

Konstantinos: There are two key aspects here. One, China needs to be transparent about how the virus developed and the steps taken by the state since to contain it. The second aspect addresses the way COVID-19 is used politically. It is interesting how governments in the US, UK, and Italy use China to avoid responsibility for their own, entirely home-made catastrophes related to the virus. Still, regardless of that, China has a lot of explaining to do for its level of transparency and its response to the outbreak.

Igor: I would add here, that it is great that people are now finally discussing the World Health Organization (WHO). At the same time, we see Trump defunding the WHO. I think it is important that as experts and observers we point out that this is wrong. A lot of bad calls have been made during this time, particularly by the UK and the US. It is important to note that the repercussions of these decisions will be felt in the future.


Dr. Igor Rogelja is a Lecturer in Global Politics at the University College London (UCL), working mostly on international infrastructure and Chinese politics. He was previously based at the Lau China Institute at King’s College London and completed his doctoral studies at SOAS, University of London. He is interested in the politics of space and is involved in several research projects examining the effects of Chinese infrastructural investments in the so-called ‘Belt and Road Initiative’.

Dr. Konstantinos Tsimonis is a Lecturer in Chinese Society at the Lau China Institute, King’s College London. He has a PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies where he also taught courses on Chinese, East Asian and comparative politics.

The views expressed by the interviewees do not necessarily reflect views of CEIAS.

  • Richard Q. Turcsányi is the program director of CEIAS. He studies international relations, economics, and political science at the Masaryk University in Brno. Currently, he is an assistant professor at the Institute of Territorial Studies of the Mendel University in Brno where he teaches courses on current East Asia, geopolitics, and theories of International Relations. He is also a researcher at the Palacky University in Olomouc where he works on the research project Sinophone Borderlands. Between August 2014 and January 2015, he conducted research as a Taiwan Fellow at the National Chengchi University. In 2016 he was doing research at Peking University and Fudan University in China.