Macron Addressing China’s Sharp Power Efforts in Europe

A flurry of concern has grown over what is being referred to as China’s “sharp power” efforts in Europe—that is, influencing efforts disguised as soft power that hinge on manipulation and covert activity. Berlin drew attention to the issue in December, when it accused Chinese intelligence of targeting over 10,000 politicians, officials, and other influential individuals through falsified social media accounts, ostensibly for covert influencing purposes as well as espionage, judging from the nature of the resulting relationships. Questions over Beijing’s infringing on academic freedom by using campus organizations as a conduit for promoting a state-approved image of China abroad have flared following incidents at Durham University in England, the University of Lyon in France, and elsewhere. Meanwhile, Chinese state media is buying inserts in leading papers in Germany, France, and elsewhere that, although discernable, do not clearly convey to the reader that they are state content.

How might Europe respond to this concern? The actions of French president Emmanuel Macron serve as a bellwether here, given his efforts to position himself as Europe’s strategic leader, in addition to his vocal censure of foreign interference in French politics. From the outset of his presidency, he denounced Russian meddling in the French elections. He recently followed up and proposed a controversial law addressing disinformation in the media.

Regarding China, the French president has indicated concern over undue influencing, but his actions have been more careful. Macron—whose name, the Chinese have noted with cautious amusement, roughly translates to “horse vanquishes dragon”—called for greater European powers to block foreign takeovers of key industries at the EU summit last June. Backed by Germany and Italy, the proposal came in light of increased Chinese foreign direct investment in Europe. On his recent trip to China, referring to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative investments abroad, Macron asserted that the new Silk Road “cannot be one-way.”

While this aims to curb Chinese economic leverage, it speaks little of limiting the more pernicious strands of Chinese political influence in Europe. Of course, France and other European countries are careful to pick their battles when it comes to a relationship that carries as much economic weight as China’s does, no less so when considering that the influencing efforts described here are not of the same scale or character as some of the more aggressive meddling Europe has experienced in its politics. However, remaining silent on the question of Chinese sharp power efforts risks inviting the kind of self-censorship on which such tools thrive and gives them room to grow into a more immediate threat over time.

That being said, a practical response would be for European states to leverage their collective weight in denouncing unscrupulous influencing efforts. Considering the push back Macron’s EU summit proposal faced, this is easier said than done. Barring that, German, French, and other leaders can and should at least ensure that requests like Macron’s for “balanced” and “reciprocal” relations are stressed and not limited to economic interactions.

Perhaps more importantly, there are actions leaders can take at home. Namely, by leveraging democratic strengths of transparency and accountability, under which influence operations wither. A variety of technological, civil society, and legislative initiatives show promise here. Such an approach can also help to prevent legitimate soft power efforts from being conflated with covert influencing operations.

By taking such steps, Macron and his European counterparts stand a better chance of vanquishing any sharp power dragons in their midst and pursuing a more mutually beneficial, “two-way” relationship with China and other actors seeking influence on the continent.

(This essay was originally published on April 24, 2018, by the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University. It is reprinted here with permission.)

Laura Daniels is an associate fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Laura Daniels

Associate Fellow, International Security Program