May 2018 has been a squalid month in statecraft. No, not because Trump tweeted something even more asinine than usual. In fact, this has nothing to do with Trump, North Korea, Malcolm Turnbull (At least directly) or even Alex Salmond.
When Trump withdrew the US from a non-binding agreement with Iran, one that the Iranian president didn’t want approved by Iran’s parliament as that would make it legally binding, the lovelies of Europe got up on their hind legs (Copyright OZ) and started screeching about “rules-based international norms”, etc. See that post for more information if you’re inclined, I won’t repeat it here as that isn’t the purpose of this one.
Something very subtle has changed this month, something that most won’t even notice. It does, however, have a profound impact on international business laws — and diplomacy — in the future. The Chinese government demanded that Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau be explicitly treated as part of China by international airlines. The consequence of not complying would be that Chinese authorities would make life more difficult for carriers that don’t reply.
In the past, a respectable modus vivendi existed. Carriers would respect the laws and preferences of each state in their national websites. This is similar to, for example, Google showing contested borders differently. Take, for example, the India-China border. In India, India’s claims are shown. In China, China’s claims are shown — with no mention of there being a dispute. In the United Kingdom, the various claims are shown with the lines of control treated as the de facto border. However, in their national — and international — websites, they had separate websites and titles — as is the norm.This respected national laws and international norms.
Now, however, these carriers have caved into China’s demands and have set a precedent in which businesses that have operations in China must comply with Chinese requirements globally. Beijing didn’t even have to do very much. They just threw a tantrum and most complied. To their credit, the Americans have launched a formal complaint and a bipartisan committee in Congress is working on a resolution to oppose this. But… The EU? They just bow. After screeching over the Iran affair, they’ve gone mute. Canada has also caved in. China can now do whatever it wants and enforce its will because they know that no one will oppose them. After harrying the Chinese for years about their human rights issues, after demanding that everyone adhere to international norms they fold to China without so much as a whimper of protest. It seems small, but this is how the Chinese do things. If they meet no resistance, they just demand more. If they do meet resistance, they see how firm it is and who the weak link is. If Europeans cannot stand up for their own rights, much less the right of an independent, democratic Taiwan with strong human rights protections to exist, they will be Beijing’s doormat.