Commentary | July 26, 2010

European Security: Take China Seriously

Greg Austin wrote this piece for his weekly column in New Europe

China’s hard-won diplomatic gains in Europe in the last two decades are under threat. China’s position in the world of information security is taking its toll, at the same time as European apathy or even resentment towards China is growing. China’s government should act more forcefully to redress both sets of perceptions. At the same time, European institutions, including the EU and NATO, must take China more seriously as a security actor.

European businesses, especially banks and high tech companies, are becoming more hostile because of aggressive efforts coming from inside China to steal privileged information, to use the internet for criminal fraud, to penetrate key infrastructure networks and to generate spam. According to an official Chinese source, the country dealt with 48,000 cases of cyber crime in 2009. Russia’s Kaspersky Lab has identified China as the source of more than half of the world’s cyber crimes in 2009. Serious corporate leaders who are aware of cyber security threats emanating from China no longer engage in any electronic communication for business when they visit the country.

China also sees itself as a victim of large-scale international cyber crime. In June this year, China published its first Internet White Paper. In this document, China committed itself to working with international partners to fight cyber crime. European governments and their  regional organizations need to respond to this commitment and engage more effectively with China to address mutual concerns about cyber security.

Public attitudes in Europe to China are getting more negative, compared with increasingly favorable images of China in many other regions and countries (including even Japan). For example, according to a recent poll commissioned by BBC, “in Italy and Spain already low positive views [of China] have decreased by seven points so that just 14 per cent in Italy and 22 per cent in Spain view China's influence as favorable”.

In January 2010, Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform noted that attitudes toward China were becoming “prickly”. A Pew Global Attitudes survey report released three weeks ago noted that opinion on whether China’s economic rise is beneficial reported that “majorities in Germany, France and Spain … see China’s economic strength as a bad thing for their country”. The deterioration in European views of China since 2005 revealed in the Pew data has been sharp, with the number holding negative views rising in the UK from 16 to 35 per cent and in Germany from 37 per cent to 61 per cent of those surveyed.

China’s diplomats in Europe have a job on their hands. This is complicated by the relatively small amount of political attention European leaders give to China, apart from occasional official visits. This trend toward indifference has been evident for several years in the regular EU-China summits, about which Chinese sources have often complained. More surprisingly, the European neglect of China also surfaced in the report of the Albright experts group on NATO’s new security concept. The giant Asian country on a growth trajectory got three very bland mentions in that report. The gulf between American preoccupation with China’s rise as a potential security competitor and a more benign (more indifferent?) view at government level in Europe could not be more pronounced. Who is right here?

Europeans need a more rounded and better developed view of what China is and what it holds for their future. As the cyber challenges suggest, risk management for European security (and NATO) in the next ten years may depend far more on how change unfolds in China than in any other single country in the world.