The Chinese Communist Party’s coercive diplomacy
What’s the problem?
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is increasingly deploying coercive diplomacy against foreign governments and companies. Coercive diplomacy isn’t well understood, and countries and companies have struggled to develop an effective toolkit to push back against and resist it.
This report tracks the CCP’s use of coercive diplomacy over the past 10 years, recording 152 cases of coercive diplomacy affecting 27 countries as well as the European Union. The data shows that there’s been a sharp escalation in these tactics since 2018. The regions and countries that recorded the most instances of coercive diplomacy over the last decade include Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand and East Asia.
The CCP’s coercive tactics can include economic measures (such as trade sanctions, investment restrictions, tourism bans and popular boycotts) and non-economic measures (such as arbitrary detention, restrictions on official travel and state-issued threats). These efforts seek to punish undesired behaviour and focus on issues including securing territorial claims, deploying Huawei’s 5G technology, suppressing minorities in Xinjiang, blocking the reception of the Dalai Lama and obscuring the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.1
China is the largest trading partner for nearly two-thirds of the world’s countries, and its global economic importance gives it significant leverage.2 The impacts of coercive diplomacy are exacerbated by the growing dependency of foreign governments and companies on the Chinese market. The economic, business and security risks of that dependency are likely to increase if the CCP can continue to successfully use this form of coercion.
What’s the solution?
A coordinated and sustained international effort by foreign governments and companies is needed to counter this coercive diplomacy and uphold global stability. This can be achieved by the following means:
- Increase global situational awareness about the widespread use of coercive diplomacy and the most effective strategies to counter it.
- Respond via coordinated and joint pushback through multilateral forums and by building minilateral coalitions of states affected by the same coercive methods.
- Five Eyes countries should consider adopting a collective economic security measure, analogous to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty establishing NATO. Using their collective intelligence arrangements and by pulling in other partners, authoritative joint attributions could be made of any coercive measures levied against any of the members with collective economic and diplomatic measures taken in response.
- Factor in the heightened risk of doing business and building economic relations with China, particularly with regard to trade flows, supply chains and market share.
- Develop economic, foreign and trade protocols in collaboration with the business community on how best to respond to coercive methods applied to business. In cases of coordinated action against companies, the dispute should be elevated to a state-level discussion to prevent individual companies being picked off and capitulating.
First, as a responsible major country, China stands upright with honour. We never strong-arm others, never seek supremacy, never withdraw from commitments, never bully others, and never complain. The word ‘coercion’ has nothing to do with China.
— Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying, October 2019.3
The past three years have seen an escalation in the CCP’s political and strategic use of coercive measures to defend what it defines as China’s ‘core’ national interests.4 Those interests include preserving domestic stability, stimulating economic development, upholding territorial integrity and securing great power status.5 The CCP has made it clear that these interests are ‘non-negotiable bottom lines of Chinese foreign policy’.6 Elizabeth Economy, the Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, explains that President Xi Jinping desires to ‘use China’s power to influence others and to establish the global rules of the game’ to protect and promote China’s national interests.7
Coercive diplomacy can be defined as ‘non-militarised coercion’ or ‘the use of threats of negative actions to force the target state to change behaviour’.8 This is in contrast with chequebook diplomacy, in which positive inducements and confidence-building measures in the forms of foreign assistance and promised investment are used by states, including the CCP, to reward countries.9 This carrot-and-stick approach reflects ‘a new level of assertiveness, confidence and ambition’ in the CCP’s foreign policy and economic diplomacy.10
Every country is concerned about protecting its interests and playing to its strengths. Larger states, such as the US and Russia, have applied pressure to smaller states to get what they want with varying levels of success.11 Nevertheless, the CCP’s approach is unique in that it rarely employs traditional methods of coercive diplomacy, which are regulated through the state’s official capacity.12 The CCP is instead arbitrarily imposing measures without officially acknowledging the link between the measures taken and the CCP’s interests, which allows for greater flexibility in escalating or de-escalating situations with less accountability and international oversight.13 This non-traditional type of coercive diplomacy therefore requires a very different set of policy tools and responses.
This research has documented 152 instances of CCP coercive diplomacy between 2010 and 2020 (Figure 1). Of those cases, 100 targeted foreign governments, while the remaining 52 cases targeted specific companies.
Figure 1: Cases of coercive diplomacy used by the CCP, by year, 2010 to 2019
Figure 1 shows a sharp increase in the number of recorded cases from 2018 onwards. Although it isn’t possible to show the full dataset for 2020, within the first eight months there were 34 recorded cases, which equates to more than half of the number recorded in 2019.
Coercive diplomacy from the CCP’s perspective
The CCP has been persistent in maintaining the narrative that its actions are proportionate to its pursuit of protecting core national interests. Most Chinese-language sources examined for this report indicate that, from the CCP’s perspective, coercive diplomacy is an instrument that’s either exclusively used by the West and to which the CCP objects,14 or is carried out by the general Chinese public and has nothing to do with the government.15
However, Chinese state-run think tanks and media organisations have explicitly encouraged the use of coercive diplomatic tactics against offending actors.16 Jian Jisong, an international law expert at the Zhongnan University of Economics and Law, writes that ‘China should liberate its thinking, and fully utilise the important tool of unilateral sanctions’.17 That sentiment is also reflected by the China Institute for Contemporary International Relations, a think tank closely associated with the Ministry of State Security, which states that ‘given the fact that our nation has increasing economic power, we should prudently use economic sanctions against those countries that … threaten our country’s national interests’.18
The CCP, particularly under the leadership of Xi Jinping, has made it increasingly clear that the party ‘leads everything’ and is in strict control of the country through its ‘ideology’ and ‘structural system’.19 This differs from liberal democracies in that China’s core national interests are closely centred on the CCP’s own self-defined political security. Any conduct by foreign states or companies perceived to breach these core national interests is therefore treated as a direct threat to the legitimacy and survival of the CCP (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Global Times tweet depicting Australia as a puppet of the US and issuing a warning against key Australian industries
Source: Global Times (@globaltimesnews), ‘Opinion: If #Australia provokes China more, China will fight it to the end to defend its core interests’, Twitter, 2:20 am, 9 July 2020, online.
This report draws on English and Chinese open-source information from news articles, policy papers, academic research, company websites, social media posts, official government documents and statements made by politicians and business officials. This report attempted to gather as many examples of coercive diplomacy as could be identified through open-source materials over a 10-year period and the cases underwent external peer review by 27 experts from 16 different countries. However, various limitations in the methodology used and finite human and language resources mean that it’s certainly not exhaustive or comprehensive. The resulting database is a starting point and an indicator of practice rather than a complete record.
Coercive diplomacy, by design, is difficult to measure because it takes various forms, is defined differently across the literature and can represent different levels of state authoritativeness, particularly in cases involving nationalist responses. The underlying data for most of this report relies on direct or implied statements by senior CCP officials and authoritative Chinese state media, non-authoritative Chinese media, and perceptions of coercive diplomacy in foreign media reports (although in some circumstances non-Chinese sources may be restricted or controlled in part by governments to prevent any further deterioration in relations with the Chinese state). Where possible, this report supplements this data with analysis from academic sources and in-country experts during the peer review process. Those sources are used to connect the action that the CCP objects to and the resulting coercive measure, as the CCP doesn’t make the link explicit and tends to deny responsibility.
However, some examples are likely to have been missed in this dataset or incorrectly specified, as cases might be only partially reported, be reported in error or go entirely unreported. This report excluded some acts of coercion, such as coercion against civil society actors and individuals, unless there was a clear link to a state dispute. This report also excluded cases in which the measures were considered a normal or proportionate diplomatic response to state conduct and cases that amounted to ‘tit-for-tat’ measures. For example, coercive acts related to the US–China trade war and the diplomatic fallout from the India–China border clash aren’t counted in the dataset.
A single incident or dispute can generate multiple instances of coercive diplomacy, which affects the total number of cases recorded in this report. A single dispute might start with a verbal threat and be followed up by a tourist ban and then by some form of trade sanction. Because this report focuses on instances of coercion rather than individual disputes, the methodology used would count that as three different instances of coercion.
Categorising CCP coercion
Coercive diplomacy encompasses a broad range of tactics that can be applied either individually or collectively by the CCP against individual companies and governments. This report divides the methods of CCP coercive diplomacy into eight categories: arbitrary detention or execution, restrictions on official travel, investment restrictions, trade restrictions, tourism restrictions, popular boycotts, pressure on specific companies and state-issued threats.
Arbitrary detention or execution
The CCP has sought to use arbitrary indictments, detainments and executions of foreign nationals for coercive effect against governments ‘that are not willing to fall in line with [the CCP’s] narrative or to cooperate, according to its own terms’.20 Arbitrary detentions and executions often involve the imposition of enforced disappearances, unusual trial delays, harsh punishments, prolonged interrogations and lack of transparency to maximise the effects of coercion.21 The CCP is also known to reinstate Chinese citizenship to detainees to prevent them from being repatriated, placing even further pressure on the governments of their home countries.22
Restrictions on official travel
Restrictions on official travel involve exerting coercive leverage by downgrading bilateral relations, imposing sanctions on travel to China by foreign leaders and state delegations, or refusing to meet with foreign counterparts.23 Examples of restrictions on official travel that have previously been imposed by the CCP include refusals of entry into China and cancellations of high-level visits.24 This often subjects the targeted government to greater political pressure in its own country to repair or reset relations to the CCP’s advantage.
China’s emergence as a major global investor has enabled the CCP to impose restrictions on Chinese outbound and inbound investment activities, such as major trade deals, foreign direct investment, infrastructure projects and joint ventures.25 Those investment restrictions can lead to economic consequences unless the target state changes its stance to that demanded by the CCP.26 This method of coercive diplomacy is commonly used against developing countries in conjunction with chequebook diplomacy.
The CCP relies heavily on trade restrictions as a means of coercing states. This tactic involves concerted efforts to disrupt trade flows and restrict foreign access to the Chinese market through import and export restrictions.27 The restrictions can be facilitated through the selective use of international regulations, targeted customs inspections, licence denials, tariff increases or unofficial embargoes.28 Chinese authorities often give unrelated administrative or regulatory explanations for such moves, simply denying the punishment motive.
With direct influence over the movements of its own citizens, the CCP has increasingly turned to tourism restrictions to coerce foreign governments. Given the size of China’s tourism market, the effects of Chinese tourism restrictions are often immediate and long-lasting. The CCP has blocked outbound tourism by issuing official travel warnings, suspending package tours organised through state-run travel agencies and banning permits for independent travellers.29 In other instances, the CCP has blocked inbound tourism by suspending visa waivers or limiting access to consular services.30
The CCP can retaliate against foreign governments without imposing direct legal or regulatory interventions by encouraging its citizens to engage in nationalistic popular boycott campaigns through state and social media (Figure 3).31 Popular boycotts can be distinguished from pressure on specific companies in that they focus on companies and industries from the target state more broadly as a means of punishing the state and influencing its public opinion. Popular boycotts aren’t always directly orchestrated by Chinese authorities but can still be encouraged through uncontrolled nationalist protests or negative coverage in state media.32 In the words of the Chinese Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, ‘Chinese people’s anger is not just verbal but will translate into action.’33
The centralisation and comprehensive government control of media in China make it easier for the CCP to mobilise its extensive consumer base and amplify existing boycott campaigns to coerce other countries.34 Pál Nyíri from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam explains that ‘in a country that so tightly controls its online spheres, we can assume some degree of at least tacit support simply by the fact that such actions are allowed to continue on the Chinese web.’35
Figure 3: Chinese demonstrators staging a protest to boycott South Korean conglomerate Lotte Group in March 2017 after the heightening of diplomatic tensions between China, South Korea and the US over the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system
Source: AFP, ‘Chinese protest against South Korea’s Lotte’, The Straits Times, 5 March 2017, online.
Pressure on specific companies
Multiple foreign companies have been coerced by Chinese authorities and consumers into issuing public apologies and modifying business operations for supposedly ‘hurting the feelings of Chinese people’.36 Such objectionable actions include ‘mislabelling’ Chinese territories on marketing platforms, supporting pro-democracy movements and making references to politically sensitive issues, even if they weren’t originally targeted at the Chinese market.37 While this method of coercive diplomacy is similar to popular boycotts, the two methods can be distinguished in that individual companies are the target on these occasions, rather than foreign governments, although the effect can be to demonstrate strength to the country where the company is based. This method of coercive diplomacy leads to adverse economic impacts due to losses in sales, popular endorsement, brand reputation or market access to the mainland.38 For this research, cases were limited to those that had a geopolitical angle and were either explicitly encouraged by state media or were likely to have been tacitly supported (although discerning the latter category necessarily involved a degree of subjectivity).
Chinese diplomats, embassies, and government ministries seek to use coercive diplomacy by releasing official statements threatening foreign governments.39 Most, if not all, such state-issued threats contain vague terminology such as ‘countermeasures’,40 ‘retaliation’,41 ‘inflict pain’,42 and ‘the right to further react’.43 Another source of state-issued threats is state-run media organisations. The Global Times, China Daily, Xinhua News and other outlets are often used as mouthpieces by the CCP to publish warnings through sensationalised English-language commentary aimed at the target state and the international community.44 Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin has implied on numerous occasions that the Global Times reflects the views of Chinese authorities, stating that ‘they can’t speak willfully, but I can’ (Figure 4).45 State-issued threats are often used as a prelude to tougher coercive measures.
Figure 4: Tweets by Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin sharing information about potential countermeasures by the CCP against the US
This research documents 152 instances of CCP coercive diplomacy between 2010 and 2020.
Of those cases, 100 targeted foreign governments (Figure 5), while the other 52 cases targeted foreign companies. Those two categories are analysed separately in this report.
Figure 5: Cases of coercive diplomacy used by the CCP against foreign governments, by category
The most common methods of coercive diplomacy against foreign governments
From the data gathered for this report, the most prominent and common methods of coercive diplomacy used by the CCP to target foreign governments are; state-issued threats (with 34 cases recorded between 2010 and 2020, over half of which were recorded in 2020 alone), trade restrictions (19 cases recorded) and tourism restrictions (17 cases recorded).
Of the 27 countries affected, Australia was subjected to the highest number of recorded cases (17 cases), followed by Canada (10 cases) and the United States (9 cases).
The regions that recorded the most instances of coercive diplomacy were Europe; North America; Australia and New Zealand; and East Asia (South Korea, Japan, Taiwan), while countries in Africa, South America, the Pacific islands and the remaining parts of Asia recorded the smallest number of cases (Figure 6). There were no recorded cases of coercive diplomacy in Central America, Central Asia, and Russia during the relevant period. This divide bears many similarities to the divide between high-income and middle/low-income countries, as defined by the World Bank.46
Figure 6: Cases of coercive diplomacy, by region
The most likely reason for this is that the political backers of the CCP are predominantly in the developing world. The CCP has had no reason to subject those countries to coercive diplomatic measures in the past 10 years. The CCP maintains a non-alliance policy, and its supporters aren’t a formal block.47 However, the recent opposing joint statements to the UN on the CCP’s treatment of Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang provide a good demonstration of current affiliations.
As demonstrated in Figures 7 and 8, there’s no overlap between countries subjected to coercive diplomacy by the CCP and those supportive of the CCP’s persecution of minorities, with the exception of the Philippines. The CCP’s use of coercive diplomacy against the Philippines arose mainly from disputes over the South China Sea. However, since President Rodrigo Duterte publicly announced a foreign policy shift to China in 2016, no further coercive diplomacy cases against the Philippines have been recorded.48
Figure 7: Countries that have recorded cases of coercive diplomacy by the CCP between 2010 and 2020
Figure 8: Countries by their stance on the CCP’s treatment of Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang
Another geopolitical trend is the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the CCP’s coercive diplomacy. The pandemic caused a world-wide lockdown that inhibited key forms of diplomatic and economic leverage for the CCP, particularly tourism restrictions (which included foreign students). This likely contributed to the rise in state-issued threats, of which over half of the 34 recorded cases from the last decade occurred after the CCP implemented the 23 January 2020 lockdown in Wuhan (see figure 9).
Figure 9: Cases of state-issued threats recorded before and after the Wuhan lockdown commenced
Threats were also a timely way for the CCP to combat the rise in criticism against its handling of the outbreak. Criticisms came mainly from Western European and Anglosphere countries, but countries such as Brazil also expressed criticism and were accordingly subjected to threats of countermeasures. The increase in state-issued threats in 2020 can also be linked to the CCP’s crackdown in Hong Kong, which prompted states around the world to take positions and actions the CCP disliked at a time when they had limited options to use other forms of coercive diplomacy.
After China started easing its lockdown restrictions, another key form of diplomatic leverage became China’s exports of medical supplies. In line with the above geopolitical analysis, the CCP ‘rapidly escalated’ medical and financial relief efforts to many countries in the developing world, particularly in Africa.49 With the much-needed medical supplies as ‘carrots’, the CCP was able to offer them with the expectation that the recipient countries wouldn’t criticise the CCP’s mishandling of the outbreak. The trade in medical supplies could also be used coercively in an attempt to influence state behaviour.
For example, in April 2020, the Netherlands angered the CCP by renaming the country’s diplomatic mission in Taiwan as ‘Netherlands Office Taipei’. In response, the state-run Global Times published an article that cited ‘Chinese netizens’ who called for the export of medical supplies to the Netherlands to cease and quoted an analyst who raised this move as a means for the CCP to send a warning to the Netherlands. This also worked as a warning to other states about the CCP’s willingness to use coercive measures, even in critical areas such as health care and during a global pandemic.50
Each of the 100 recorded cases of coercive diplomacy involved the CCP acting unilaterally against an individual country. Although the response of countries to the coercive measures wasn’t always clear, where it was possible to discern the reaction, most countries made re-establishing good relations the priority. For example, the CCP enacted multiple coercive measures against Norway in 2010 in retaliation to the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. After those measures were enacted, UN voting patterns showed closer alignment between China and Norway, and the Norwegian Government supported the admission of China as an observer in the Arctic Council in 2013 and refused to meet with the Dalai Lama for the first time in 2014 (although Norway, like many other countries, may have ceased those meetings in response to China’s general growing global clout, without the fallout from the awarding of the prize).51 The CCP’s actions succeeded in influencing Norway’s foreign policy, as the concessions required to appease the party were relatively minor (the same level of success mightn’t have been achieved had the required concession been bigger).52
This type of result seems likely only to license further coercion by the CCP against others. The CCP intentionally isolates countries in this way to retain comparative strength and ensure the effectiveness of its coercive methods. The CCP’s comparative strength would be significantly diminished if countries that have been subjected to similar coercive diplomatic tactics joined forces to counter them. Remarkably, countries have so far failed to band together to counter CCP coercion, even when that’s been manifestly in their interests. This may be due to a lack of awareness of the widespread use by the CCP of coercive diplomacy, a lack of strategic analysis by foreign ministries of the best way to counter such coercion, or both.
A notable example of this failure involved Canada and Australia. Just days following the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Canada pursuant to the US–Canada extradition treaty, the CCP arbitrarily arrested Canadian citizens Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. It took three weeks before Australia released a statement expressing its ‘concerns’ over the Canadians’ detention.53 The statement fell short of condemning the CCP’s actions and didn’t call for the immediate release of the Canadians, despite two Australian citizens having been subjected to arbitrary detention the previous year and both of them still being detained.54 Australia’s delay in issuing the statement meant that Australia and Canada (as well as the EU and US) weren’t unified in their response to the CCP’s actions and therefore had little impact.
Further analysis on the most common methods of coercive diplomacy against foreign governments
In addition to the Covid-19 pandemic significantly limiting other forms of coercive diplomacy available to the CCP in 2020 (discussed above) a likely reason for the high rate of state-issued threats is because they are the quickest and most cost-effective form of coercive diplomacy and carry the lowest risk to the CCP’s interests. Our research has found these can be enough, on their own, to coerce the target state into changing course if the state places limited political value on the source of the dispute55 (although threats were not enough to change behaviour if the stakes were high enough, as the in-depth case studies on pages 18–21 illustrate).
This report recorded 19 cases of trade restrictions between 2010 and 2020, over half of which occurred since 2018. In all recorded cases, the CCP never officially implemented official sanctions against the target state; instead, an unrelated official reason was provided (such as non-compliance with sanitation or labelling requirements) or no reason was given at all. There are strong indicators for each recorded case that the CCP’s measures were designed to thinly disguise the use of trade to punish and change the behaviour of target states.
For some issues, to be effective, the target state needs to be aware that the trade measures are being levied as punishment for a given action, so, while direct causal relationships aren’t made explicit by the CCP, the trade restrictions are made in such a way as to make the connection clear to the target state. For other issues, it can be useful to maintain greater ambiguity to put the target state off balance, not knowing exactly why the restrictions are happening but only that the CCP is displeased and that concessions in some form are needed. Both approaches help the CCP maintain its official stance that coercive diplomacy is exclusively employed by the West.56 By providing an unrelated official reason to disguise coercive diplomatic measures, the CCP is able to maintain plausible deniability, which offers some protection against countries raising the issue through international channels, such as the World Trade Organization.57
The recorded cases of trade restrictions also demonstrate that the CCP is highly selective in the commodities it targets in order to send a powerful message to target states whilst minimising any harm to its own interests.58 For example, the CCP imposed restrictions on Canadian meat imports in June 2019 in retaliation against the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. 59 However, the CCP retracted these restrictions just 5 months later despite the tensions over this issue persisting, after the effects of a swine fever outbreak continued to drive domestic pork prices unsustainably high.60 With China’s domestic supply not being expected to recover for two or three years (especially with the risk of further outbreaks) and inflation rates nearing an 8 year high as a result,61 it was ultimately in the CCP’s interests to make this concession.62 This case illustrates some of the constraints on the CCP’s use of economic coercion.
The CCP’s recent trade restrictions against Australian barley (which are widely interpreted to be retaliation for Australia pushing for an inquiry into the origins and handling of the Covid-19 outbreak) further illustrate how these measures are often ‘aligned with—or constrained by—market trends and conditions’.63 Of all the trade restriction cases recorded, the CCP’s measures imposed on barley stand out as seemingly having the biggest effect on China’s own trade practices, as Australian barley accounted for up to 80% of China’s barley imports in recent years.64 However, this in fact aligns with the CCP’s goal of self-sufficiency and import diversification.65 Furthermore, the restrictions coincided with a significant decline in China’s domestic demand for barley.66 Though the sanctions were ‘triggered’ by Australia’s call for the Covid-19 inquiry, the CCP wanted to employ them anyway due to the benefit that would provide to the Chinese domestic market.67 As argued by Scott Waldron from the University of Queensland, it is significant that the CCP has not imposed restrictions in relation to wool, given China buys approximately 75% of Australia’s wool exports.68
The selective use of trade restrictions simultaneously minimises impacts on Chinese consumers and businesses, while maintaining leverage against the target state. Severe disruption to all trade with a target state would not only negatively affect Chinese consumers and businesses but would also exhaust all leverage against the target state in one go and completely undermine the CCP’s narrative of plausible deniability. To date, the CCP has aimed to find a balance between punishing a country enough to make it change its behaviour and running the risk of damaging relations to the point at which the state no longer sees value in appeasing the CCP or at which the Chinese economy would be damaged. As demonstrated by the case studies, the CCP selects only individual commodities or services to target with restrictions. While targeted restrictions were in place, it was common for other sectors within the same state to experience an increase in Chinese trade. This was the case in Canada in 2019; after Canadian canola imports were blocked in China, Canadian wheat exporters experienced a rise in wheat imports into China.69 Similarly, in August 2020, trade between China and Australia was 4% higher than in the previous year, despite the constraints of the Covid-19 pandemic and a deterioration in bilateral relations.70
Tourism restrictions are the third most common form of coercive diplomacy used to target foreign governments identified through this research. This report recorded 17 cases between 2010 and 2020, half of which occurred after 2018. China is the world’s largest outbound tourism market. It accounts for more than 20% of global tourism, and 150 million Chinese tourists travelled abroad and spent a combined total of US$277 billion in 2018.71 Subject to the long-term impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on large-scale tourism, those figures are likely to continue to increase and further grow the importance of the Chinese tourist market, as only an estimated 10% of Chinese citizens hold passports.72
The CCP holds considerable influence over its outbound tourism market,73 which it has manipulated to promote foreign policy objectives. As demonstrated in the recorded cases, the CCP controls outbound tourism through issuing travel warnings and using its regulatory powers over travel agents to direct them to avoid selling package tours to a blacklisted country. The travel restrictions necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic have not prevented the CCP from threatening tourism restrictions or issuing travel warnings. The lack of international travel at the time these warnings were issued highlights the fact that the measures are usually not in response to the reasons claimed by the CCP and are primarily used to coerce.
In-depth case studies
Norway, South Korea, Canada and Australia have each individually experienced the full spectrum of the CCP’s coercive diplomatic tactics. Despite obvious temporal and geographical differences among the following four case studies, the CCP’s actions followed a remarkably similar pattern.
In-Depth Case Study: Norway
In-Depth Case Study: South Korea
In-Depth Case Study: Canada
In-Depth Case Study: Australia
Coercive diplomacy against foreign companies
This report documents 52 cases of pressure applied by or at least encouraged by the CCP against foreign companies. In many of the recorded cases, the CCP applied pressure by inciting backlash from Chinese consumers, blocking websites or adding legal penalties. Even in cases in which the CCP can’t be directly linked to the backlash, it has arguably encouraged this consumer response by not censoring it. This is despite the backlash being overtly political and something that would ordinarily attract censorship in China if it were directed against anything contrary to the CCP’s interests.
The effectiveness of the CCP’s coercion against companies can be measured by the rate at which apologies were issued in response to the coercion. Of the cases recorded in this report, 82.7% of the companies issued apologies. Almost no companies had their own governments step up to help them respond (Figures 10, 11 and 12).
Figure 10: Percentages of companies that have issued apologies, complied with directions from Chinese state authorities, or both
Figure 11: An image portraying foreign brands being targeted by the Chinese social media platform Weibo
Source: Manya Koetse, ‘Hong Kong protests: Brand “witch hunt” takes over Chinese internet”’, BBC News, 15 August 2019, online.
Figure 12: An official apology by Italian luxury brand Versace was shared online after it received backlash for designing T-shirts that implied that Hong Kong and Macau are independent territories
Source: VERSACE (@Versace), ‘The Company apologizes for the design of its product and a recall of the t-shirt has been implemented in July’, Twitter, 7:36 pm, 11 August 2019, online.
The success of coercive measures against businesses largely stems from companies being profit-driven and having limited power relative to the world’s second largest economy. China’s consumer spending overtook the US’s for the first time in 2019,74 so companies are unlikely to risk losing access to that market. Targeting companies allows the CCP to achieve political ends while keeping the dispute at arm’s length from governments that would be better placed to push back. For example, in April 2018, the Chinese Civil Aviation Administration ordered 36 international airlines to remove all references from their websites that suggested Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau were separate regions or risk having the company’s ‘serious dishonesty’ recorded and facing ‘disciplinary actions’.75 By July 2018, all 36 airlines, including British Airways, Japan Airlines, Lufthansa and Qantas, had modified their websites and other promotional material to reflect the CCP’s views. Delta Airlines went further and apologised for its listing, stating ‘We are fully committed to China and to our Chinese customers.’76 If the governments of the countries where the airlines were headquartered had instead banded together to counter the threat, the outcome would likely have been very different.
The emergence of a counter-coercion strategy
A number of foreign governments, including those of Australia, Canada, Japan, India, the UK and the US, are starting to call out the CCP’s coercive diplomacy as it happens and are working on ways to develop an effective counter-coercion strategy.77 For example, Australia set the foundations for a counter-coercion strategy back in June 2017 during the 16th Shangri-La Dialogue when then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull stated that ‘a coercive China would find its neighbours resenting demands they cede their autonomy and strategic space, and look to counterweight Beijing’s power by bolstering alliances and partnerships.’78 The Australian Government then enacted new national security and foreign interference legislation, citing ‘disturbing reports about Chinese influence’.79
Three years later, in June 2020, Prime Minister Scott Morrison formally declared that Australia won’t be intimidated by threats from the CCP and won’t trade its values in response to ‘coercion’.80 In August 2020, Morrison affirmed that Australia wants to ‘see international engagement framed by agreed rules and norms, not crude economic or political coercion’ in reference to the CCP and ‘will call it as we see it’.81
Another example was in August 2020 when the Five Eyes intelligence alliance issued a joint statement demonstrating grave concern over the disqualification of pro-democracy candidates in the Hong Kong Legislative Council elections and condemning the suppression of Hong Kong citizens’ rights and freedoms following the imposition of a new national security law by the CCP.82 The joint statement came after the CCP threatened countermeasures against all five member states for suspending extradition treaties and providing assistance to Hong Kong citizens.83 While counter-coercion strategies remain unclear for the rest of the world, they’re likely to increase in the future as the CCP continues with its coercive tactics.
Future challenges and recommendations
Coercive diplomacy is an important tool of Chinese foreign policy that the CCP will continue to use against foreign governments and companies, particularly in democratic countries. The CCP’s practice of coercive diplomacy is very broad in its targets, intentions, methods and levels of retaliation. Therefore, this report seeks to offer flexible policy options that can be implemented across different levels of society.
Recommendation 1: Increase global situational awareness about coercive diplomacy
The current failure of countries and companies to effectively deter coercive diplomacy suggests that there’s limited appreciation of its prevalence and limited discussion of effective countermeasures. Governments could remedy this by tasking their foreign ministries to track coercive diplomacy and use that data to identify potential coalitions, particularly in the areas of economic cooperation, trade liberalisation and technological development. Research institutions could also be encouraged to systematically track instances of coercive diplomacy.
Recommendation 2: Respond via coordinated and joint pushback
Responding to coercive threats in an individual capacity, whether as a state or as a company, will only work for the US, given China’s current size and heft. To be effective, governments need to counter the CCP’s divide-and-conquer tactics by pursuing coordinated and joint pushback through multilateral forums such as the G7, G10 and European Union and by building minilateral coalitions of countries affected by the same coercive methods. Those coalitions could be used to publicly call out examples of coercion in the same way that’s currently used to attribute cyberattacks, and follow that up with countermeasures. In many cases, it would be unethical and against core values to reciprocate with like-for-like countermeasures (for example, arbitrary arrests and executions), so countermeasures will need to target alternative areas, such as through joint statements, economic sanctions or official travel restrictions.
Recommendation 3: Establish a 5 Eyes collective economic security pact
The Five Eyes countries should consider adopting a collective economic security measure, analogous to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty establishing NATO (“an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all”). Using their collective intelligence arrangements, the Five Eyes countries could make authoritative joint attributions of any coercive measures levied against any of the five members and take collective economic and diplomatic measures in retaliation. Such an arrangement could also involve an agreement to abstain from taking advantage of any coercive trade measures imposed by the CCP (for example, refusing to fill the shortfall created by banning Canadian pork). While this approach may be less attractive to the current US Administration it may be of interest to future administrations and would be highly effective in deterring the use of coercive diplomatic measures.
Recommendation 4: Develop protocols in collaboration with the business community to counter coercive measures targeting companies
Affected governments should work more closely with business groups to develop protocols on how to best respond to economic coercive methods applied by the CCP. The increasing risk of economic coercion by the party should be assessed as a structural matter in economic and trade policies, not just as isolated or unexpected acts in response to particular decisions and events. In cases of coordinated action against companies, the dispute should be elevated to a state-level discussion to prevent individual companies from being picked off and being forced to capitulate. In the case involving 36 global airlines, a more effective approach would have involved governments assuming the lead in responding to the ultimatum, working to form a global coalition of countries and their airlines that refused to be pressured, and countering the coercion by threatening reciprocal bans on access to their markets.
Recommendation 5: Factor in the heightened risk of doing business and building economic relations with China
As the CCP uses economic coercion more often, and more overtly, foreign companies with business operations in China need to factor in the increasing risk to trade flows, supply chains and market share. That risk is significant enough to warrant board-level attention and will no doubt be a standing topic in audit committees because of its bottom-line impact. This requires board-level involvement to protect shareholder value and is also likely to require companies to work more closely with their home government policymakers.
Readers are encouraged to download the report PDF to access the extensive dataset which details cases of CCP coercive diplomacy targeting foreign governments and companies.
01 Sep 2020