Handling Beijing: Nordic and EU lessons to be learned as Finland stands up to China

Finland has decided to suspend an extradition treaty with Hong Kong over a new Chinese law the Finns say damages fundamental freedoms. And Beijing has let its displeasure be known.

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China's President Xi Jinping & Mrs Peng Liyuan host Finnish President Sauli Niinistö and Mrs Jenni Haukio at an official event in Beijing, 14th January 2020 / Credit: Matti Porre, TPK

Finland and China are marking 70 years of diplomatic relations this month, but the anniversary comes with a diplomatic bump in the road, as Europe considers the balance of its relationship with the Asian economic powerhouse around issues like human rights and democracy.

The Finns, who have enjoyed increasingly warm relations with China during Sauli Niinistö‘s presidency, now find themselves on the receiving end of criticism from Beijing for speaking out about the deteriorating situation in Hong Kong in particular.

The spat comes as two other Nordic countries, Norway and Sweden, are rebuilding their own bridges with China after long-running disputes; and as the European Union adopts what it calls a more “clear-eyed” approach to relations with China – including addressing subjects the authoritarian regime in Beijing might prefer not to air in public.

Last week the Finnish government and President Niinistö agreed to suspend the extradition agreement between Finland and the government of Hong Kong. The decision was taken because China introduced a new security act for the territory which Finland says “gives China ample opportunity to interfere with Hong Kong’s sovereignty, the functioning of the courts and the fundamental freedoms of its citizens” among other concerns.

In response, the Chinese Embassy in Helsinki issued a sharp rebuke to the Finns, expressing “grave concern and strong opposition” to the move.

“Hong Kong affairs are entirely China’s internal affairs, and allow no foreign interference” the embassy’s statement says.

“The Chinese side urges the Finnish side to abide by the international law and the basic norms governing international relations, stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs and China’s internal affairs in any forms.”

So has Finland been meddling in China’s internal affairs? Not at all, say diplomats.

“We of course note their point of view and their disappointment with the national decision that we have made, but certainly we do not feel this is any kind of interference with China’s affairs” says Arto Haapea, Director for East Asia and Oceania at the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“This is a bilateral agreement in which we are the second party, and perfectly in accordance with the provisions of that agreement we have decided to suspend the treaty” he tells News Now Finland.

As far as diplomatic rebukes go it’s not the highest rung on the ladder. China could have escalated this in Beijing, with the Finnish ambassador potentially summoned for an upbraiding at the Foreign Ministry. But issuing a local press release instead shows the Chinese wanted to make their point, but do it in a diplomatically low key way.

The Chinese took similar action, and used similar language, in August when Germany also suspended its Hong Kong extradition treaty.

“I would consider it a proportionate response” says Haapea, diplomatically.

Composite picture of Finland and China flags / Credit: iStock

China’s strong-arm tactics ‘unlikely’ for Finland 

A worrying tactic the Chinese authorities have adopted recently with some Western countries that criticised Beijing – in particular Australia and Canada – is arbitrary detentions of citizens including businessmen and journalists.

One expert who studies Chinese foreign and security policy says he doesn’t think it’s likely the current dispute would rise to the level where Finnish citizens are at risk of being detained if they travel to Hong Kong or China.

“This is a relatively recent phenomenon, this way of capturing and holding foreign citizens on trumped-up charges” says Henrik Stålhane Hiim, a Senior Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs NUPI.

“What they’re basically trying to do, it’s a tit-for-tat. It’s Chinese authorities believing that their citizens are being held unfairly in another country so it’s a way to signal that will have repercussions. That’s the basic thing they’re trying to achieve, but you have to question how successful that strategy is” he tells News Now Finland in a phone interview from Oslo.

The Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs also doesn’t seem to think there’s any particular danger for Finns who go to China or Hong Kong, saying they have no plans to update their travel advice to include a warning about the possibility of arbitrary detentions.

European Council President Charles Michel speaks after EU-China leaders’ virtual meeting, Brussels, 14th September 2020 / Credit: European Union

Europe’s worsening perception of China and its leader  

The latest diplomatic spat comes as the EU takes a look at the scope of its relation with China, and against the backdrop of growing mistrust among EU citizens about China’s role in the world.

A study by the Pew Research Center published earlier this month found increasingly negative attitudes in seven large European countries included in the study.

For the Nordics, some 85% of Swedes have a negative view of China – the highest peak since Pew started recording such attitudes more than a decade ago – while just 14% of Swedes have a positive view of China the study found; and 75% of Danes also have a negative view of the country.

Some 82% of both Swedes and Danes also have “no confidence” in Chinese President Xi Jinping “to do the right thing regarding world affairs” according to the Pew research.

And 65% of Swedes, and 72% of Danes say they believe China has done a bad job of handling the Covid-19 pandemic. Finland wasn’t included in the Pew Research Center study.

At EU level, the 27-nation bloc has expressed its “grave concern” about the situation in Hong Kong where pro-democracy demonstrations have fizzled out as Mainland China flexes its muscles against protesters and rounds up activists.

Hong Kong aside, there’s also deep concerns in the EU over a trade level playing field, China’s system of government, and persecution of the Uighur Muslim minority among many other issues.

The current EU administration concedes it has to become less naive about China, with European Council President Charles Michel saying in September “we have to recognize that we do not share the same values, political systems, or approach to multilateralism […] we will engage in a clear-eyed and confident way, robustly defending EU interests and standing firm on our values.”

The EU is supposed to take another look at the Hong Kong situation before the end of this year, but one opportunity to sit down face-to-face with China’s leaders at a planned summit with EU27 leaders in Germany in November, where some of these big disagreements could potentially have been aired, become an early casualty of coronavirus.

File picture of Chairman Mao picture in Tiananmen Square, Beijing / Credit: News Now Finland

Nordic lessons for dealing with China 

Finland’s not the first Nordic nation to fall foul of Beijing, albeit in a less dramatic way. Both Sweden and Norway have had more serious disputes with the Chinese in recent years and there could be lessons for the Finns to learn – like just riding out the storm.

In Sweden’s case the falling-out centered around a human rights case, and the abduction of a Hong Kong bookseller, a Swedish national, by Chinese authorities in 2015. Gui Minhai was held in detention for months without access to consular officials. After a high profile back-and-forth, which involved the bookseller making apparently coerced statements against the Swedes, he was jailed earlier this year on espionage charges.

The Norwegians meanwhile were given the cold shoulder by the Chinese for six years after the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to dissident Liu Xiaobo.

“Although there was a diplomatic process that ended with a joint statement, I ultimately think it was China that decided it was time to end the spat, arguably as part of a broader diplomatic effort to improve relations with European states” at that time, explains researcher Henrik Stålhane Hiim. 

The joint statement was controversial, as the Norwegian government said that “it attaches high importance to China’s core interests and major concerns” which looks like a win for China, and a bit of a capitulation on the part of Norway.

“Another interesting aspect of the Norwegian case is that the economic fallout was ultimately limited. China [only] sanctioned some high-profile goods, like salmon” says Stålhane Hiim.

File picture of dragon architectural detail at Forbidden City, Beijing / Credit: News Now Finland