Global Challenges is a brand of DvH Medien. The new institute aims to promote discussion of geopolitical issues through publications by recognized experts. Today a contribution from Günther H. Oettinger, former Prime Minister of Baden-Württemberg and EU Commissioner for Budget and Human Resources, Digital Economy and Society, Energy, today Chairman of the economic and political consultancy United Europe eV in Hamburg. Further authors are prof. Dr. Ann-Kristin Achleitner, Sigmar Gabriel, Prof. Dr. Volker Perthes, Prof. Jörg Rocholl PhD, Prof. Dr. Bert Rürup and Prof. Dr. Renate Schubert.
With the award of the renowned Sakharov Prize in 2019, the European Parliament honored imprisoned Chinese critic Ilham Tohti and his fight against state censorship and human rights violations. At the same time, MEPs called on the European Union to impose sanctions on China in light of hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs imprisoned in “re-education camps” – without success.
When Beijing suppressed mass protests in Hong Kong against the new “security laws” that summer, the world looked to the former British Crown Colony. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas even welcomed Joshua Wong, one of the protests’ leaders, into his Berlin office. This time, EU heads of state or government decided to sanction the Chinese puppet regime in Hong Kong. Exports of irritating gas, surveillance technology and water cannons must be limited because they can help suppress the democracy movement.
Maas was delighted with an ‘instrument box from which we use’. However, the joy seemed overly artificial. Last year, Germany exported 50,000 euros worth of relevant goods to Hong Kong, such as ammunition for shotguns. And Beijing and its special administration zone do not depend on water cannons or monitoring technology from Europe – after all, China itself is the world market leader when it comes to monitoring technology.
These two examples – as well as the recent EU punitive measures against parts of the Belarusian elite following the faked presidential election and the additional sanctions against high-level representatives of the Russian regime following the attack on Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny – show see how weak threats and punishments are tools of the geopolitical struggle. Are punishments like the one against Hong Kong just symbolic?
And given the overwhelming importance of the Chinese market to the German auto industry, would it even be possible that Berlin would support severe sanctions against Beijing? Could the demands for sanctions be mainly used to make Western politicians feel better looking in the mirror in the morning?
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That should be the case from time to time. However, the flip side of the coin should not be overlooked: sanctions can also be a necessary complement to foreign policy, as important as it is legitimate. Autocrats such as Russian President Vladimir Putin do not give up by simply convincing them. Sanctions celebrated their most beautiful victory in South Africa: the international boycott of the racist regime in Pretoria was instrumental in overcoming apartheid – enabling Nelson Mandela to become South Africa’s first black president in 1994.
In contrast, there was no regime change in Cuba, North Korea or Iran, although some of these states have been subject to severe economic sanctions for decades. But instead of the elites, only the people suffer. For example, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un rushes through the capital Pyongyang in Mercedes armored luxury cars while the people are starving. It is said that the bodies were obtained by criminal front men.
Sanctions should be a “war by other means”
What French President Emmanuel Macron says about Pyongyang is as correct as it is cheap: “If we want effective economic sanctions that force North Korea to change, then we have to tighten sanctions – and China and Russia play a key role in this. But Beijing and Moscow, which reflect the geopolitical system competition, have absolutely no interest in tightening sanctions against Pyongyang. On the contrary, without a secret energy supply from China and Russia, the Kim dynasty could no longer survive.
Economic sanctions, that was the guiding principle behind the creation of the League of Nations 100 years ago, should be some kind of civilized form of conflict resolution to prevent war – a “war by other means.” But sanctions can only do that if they work well. In the case of Russia, this is clearly not the case. In any case, Putin did not return Crimea to Ukraine because things with Germany deteriorated after the annexation. But when can sanctions be effective and successful? And how can power and morality be reconciled?
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The answer to these crucial questions is: The European Union can act and impose sanctions if it has technologies that others do not. “Vorsprung durch Technik” is the key to a successful sanctions policy in the interests of human rights and the prevention of war. However, EU members are giving this key away, as the examples of e-mobility and the expansion of the 5G network show. With our eyesight, we run the risk of having fewer and fewer products and technologies that states threatened with sanctions do not have.
We lack products and future technologies in which Germany and the European Union can become world market leaders. This applies, for example, to artificial intelligence or hydrogen technology as a storage medium for energy or for propulsion of buses, trains and ships. After all, Germany and the EU are only beginning to massively promote artificial intelligence and hydrogen technology. The nine billion euros that Berlin wants to invest in hydrogen technology should only be the first step. We need more research networks across Europe. What’s against launching some sort of Airbus project for hydrogen as the fuel of the future?
It is all the more anachronistic that the European Council in July significantly cut funding for the future EU programs “Horizon Europe” and “Digital Europe”. At the same time, moderate cuts to the agricultural budget must be reversed. Wrong world! Let us hope that Members of the European Parliament refuse to take this wrong turn. Not least in the geopolitical interests of the continent and a sanctions policy that learns to combine power and morality.