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Fifty years of diplomatic relations with China: an ‘open and pragmatic’ partnership

This year, the Netherlands and China reflect on fifty years of diplomatic relations at ambassadorial level. How has the relationship between the countries developed over the past half century? An interview with university lecturer Vincent Chang.

Vincent Chang

For China, this juncture is perhaps more important than for the Netherlands,' says Chang. Whereas the Netherlands is celebrating its relations with a single - albeit important - bilateral partner, in China they see this moment in a broader historical context as a turning point in international politics and the attendant prestige of the People's Republic.

‘When Mao Zedong proclaimed the People's Republic of China in 1949, it took a long time before it was recognized by most countries in the West. At that time, Taiwan still had a rival government that also claimed control over the whole of China,' Chang explains. Following England's example, the Netherlands recognized the People's Republic of China already in 1950, but the United Nations did not. Because of this 'Chinese question' in the UN, the Netherlands was unable to establish diplomatic relations at the highest level for more than 20 years. It was not until the UN General Assembly changed its vote in 1971 and allocated the Chinese seat to the People's Republic that the Netherlands, like many other Western countries, appointed an ambassador to Beijing. That was a historic moment for China, according to Chang: 'All countries that normalised their relations with China at that time explicitly declared their respect for the "one China principle" of the People's Republic.

The Century of Humiliation and the resurrection of China

The UN's U-turn thus fits well with the narrative embraced by the Chinese state that China has been experiencing a rebirth since the middle of the twentieth century. When the first trade contacts between the Dutch and the Chinese took place in the early seventeenth century, the conditions for trade were largely dictated by the Chinese imperial court. From about 1840, this lopsided relationship was turned 180 degrees and a period of about a hundred years commenced in which China was confronted not only with Western trade pressures, but also with geopolitics in the form of modern imperialism. China was never colonised in the usual sense of the word. But many Western states, including the Netherlands, unilaterally exacted all kinds of privileges from China and established spheres of influence there.

China has to undergo a 'rebirth'.

‘If, for example, a European caused harm or injury to a Chinese person, or caused their death, the case was not dealt with by the Chinese court, but by a European consul,' explains Chang. Such interference has always been sensitive in China, where this period came to be known as the 'Century of Humiliation'. After the founding of the PRC, the 'Century of Humiliation' became an important source of motivation and legitimisation for the Chinese Communist Party: this cannot ever happen again. China has to undergo a 'rebirth' and once again become a powerful player on the world stage. Chang: 'The goal is to have surpassed, or at least equalled, the West in economic, military and diplomatic terms by 2049, a hundred years after the founding of the People's Republic.

Pragmatic partners

Paradoxically, this desire to surpass the West has had a positive impact on relations with the Netherlands. China gradually adopted a more open policy and became a member of the World Trade Organisation in 2001, which boosted international trade. The Dutch business community has gratefully taken advantage of the opportunities this offered: 'The Netherlands is invariably China's second or third largest trading partner in Europe, and we are also important to them in many specific areas,' says Chang. Contacts between the countries are generally good. The Dutch and Chinese governments speak of an ''open and pragmatic partnership''. Criticism is allowed, because partners may disagree on certain issues, but practical cooperation is paramount.'

Criticism is allowed, because partners may disagree on certain issues, but practical cooperation is paramount.

Thanks to this approach, diplomatic relations have proven resilient and durable. Only when the Netherlands allowed the sale of two submarines to Taiwan in the early 1980s did relations with Beijing deteriorate and the Dutch ambassador was no longer welcome in China for two years. However, the Chinese approach to human rights, an important and delicate issue in Dutch politics, rarely leads to major problems. Chang: 'In 1997, the then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hans van Mierlo, publicly voiced strong criticism of the human rights situation in China. This led to the cancellation of official visits, but it did not have any long-term consequences. This is partly due to this pragmatic approach, but increasingly also because the Netherlands, particularly in these kinds of more sensitive situations, is working together within the EU.

A new tipping point?

Nevertheless, Chang sees firm challenges ahead for the relationship between the Netherlands and China. Geopolitical tensions are increasing worldwide since the trade war between the US and China, the COVID-19 issue, the growing mutual rivalry, and now the war in Europe. Added to this, there are all kinds of complex issues relating to market access and the security of infrastructure and technology, as in the Huawei case and 5G networks. The strategic contrasts are growing, the mutual rhetoric and ideologies are becoming more pronounced, and attempts at rapprochement are rare and insufficient. Even if we in the Netherlands and Europe wanted to, the question is to what extent it will remain possible to continue or deepen the current partnership in a further polarising climate.'

Experts are therefore looking forward to the major Party conference planned for this autumn in China. In the run-up to it, Chinese politics tends to be frenetic. It might be that there will be a little more room to breathe after that,' Chang explains. Furthermore, analysts do not see much perspective at the moment. The restrictions imposed by Corona have led to a decline in the economic and operational aspects of the relationship in particular. Beijing is turning inwards and focusing more on domestic legitimacy since the West does not give it the recognition and status it wants. For now, this is having a relatively minor impact on political and diplomatic ties between the Netherlands and China, but if the broader trend continues, it could lead to another turning point. Hopefully, we will not then be back to square one. For that reason alone, it is useful to reflect on the long journey that has been made to get where we are today.

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