New Delhi: A series of innocuous tweets by a China specialist researcher with the Parisbased Foundation for Strategic Research and the aggressive response to the tweets by the Chinese Ambassador to France, have turned into a diplomatic crisis between the two countries. This incident, observers say, has also brought to the fore the aggression that the Chinese government is displaying across different dimensions.

The Sunday Guardian spoke to Antoine Bondaz, Research Fellow with Foundation for Strategic Research, whose tweets questioning the “pressure” being put on French Senator Alain Richard by Chinese Ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, to dissuade him and other members of the Senate’s FranceTaiwan Friendship Group from visiting Taiwan, were met with offensive response from the Chinese Ambassador. Lu Shaye had written to the French Senator, asking him to avoid any form of official contact with the Taiwanese authorities, as this could send the wrong message to “pro-independence forces” in Taiwan. When Bondaz criticised this action by Lu Shaye, the Chinese Ambassador called him a “smalltime hoodlum”, a “crazed hyena” and “ideological troll” with “anti-Chinese” stances, prompting France’s foreign ministry to term Shaye’s action and words as “unacceptable comments”. The ministry has also summoned Shaye.

Bondaz’s research focuses mainly on the foreign and security policy of China and the two Koreas, and strategic issues in East Asia. He was also Special Adviser to the President of the Delegation for Relations with the Korean Peninsula of the European Parliament during the 8th Parliament. He currently teaches at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, at the School of Public Affairs (“Europe-Asia relations in the Trump era”) and at the Europe-Asia campus (“China’s foreign and security policy” and “Demystifying North Korea”). Excerpts from the interview:

Q: Your tweets have led to a diplomatic standoff between the French government and Chinese officials. Did someone overreact over what was otherwise a tweet by a strategic scholar?

A: This is not just an overreaction on the part of the Chinese embassy, but unjustifiable and unacceptable behaviour. Insulting a researcher, repeatedly, seeking to intimidate and discredit him without ever once criticizing his work, without once talking about the substance, is simply unworthy.

My initial tweets were simple: the Chinese embassy in France has no injunction to make to parliamentarians. They can obviously criticize them, they are free to do so, but in no way can they dictate what they can or cannot do. I would also like to remind you that French parliamentary delegations to Taiwan are frequent and in no way involve the responsibility of the French government.

Clearly, the Chinese embassy does not understand what the separation of powers, freedom of expression, and independence of research are, which the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs was able to remind the ambassador of when he was summoned.

Q: Do you see this as a sign of things to come? Of Chinese embassies across the world attacking individuals who speak out against Chinese policies?

A: I hope that this incident remains an isolated one and will not be repeated. Chinese authorities are free to express their disagreements, they are free to criticize certain policies, but insulting researchers and seeking to intimidate them is a red line. Chinese diplomats rightly demand respect, but some of them have a decidedly difficult time understanding what respect means.

Q: Would you call your tweets “anti-China” as the Chinese embassy in France has termed it?

A: Criticizing certain policies of the Chinese authorities obviously does not mean being anti-China. My research focuses on China’s foreign and security policy, and I am led to take a critical look at the consequences of this policy on French interests. The problem today is that the Chinese political authorities are unable to accept criticism and to accept a contradictory debate. They want to impose a point of view which is not acceptable in France. Our democratic societies are far from perfect, but plurality in the debate is a minimum requirement.

Moreover, this strategy of the authorities to discredit any criticism by claiming that its authors are racist or biased is not new. But it clearly does not honour the vast majority of Chinese diplomats who are professional diplomats, know how to balance things and are ready to listen to contradictory opinions.

Q: Many experts have said this kind of offensive strategy on the part of China where it took offence to a tweet by private individual is part of China’s wolf warrior style of diplomacy. As someone who closely follows China, how do you read it?

A: I don’t know if the term wolf warrior diplomacy is very appropriate, although it is widely used. Clearly, for several years the rhetoric of Chinese diplomacy has been firmer and more uncompromising. And nobody blames China for expressing and defending its interests. But in this incident in France, we are well beyond that. Such behaviour, fortunately isolated, undermines the whole of Chinese diplomacy and especially bilateral relations.

What worries me the most is not the rhetoric, but the decisions and actions that are taken. The Chinese authorities have entered into an overbidding, especially towards the Europeans, which will only be counterproductive. By seeking to isolate and intimidate the Europeans, China is encouraging them only to move closer to the Americans, the British, the Canadians, but also to the Indians and the Japanese, which goes against its interests.

Q: Has China become insecure due to the rapidly changing global movements in the past few years which include the verbal attack that it faced due to Covid-19, the scrutiny it is experiencing due to its handling of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang and the most recent Quad summit? And is that forcing it to become “hyper-aggressive” as a few experts have called it?

A: As you call it, this hyper aggressiveness is in my opinion not a sign of strength, but a sign of weakness. The objective of the authorities is to polarize, not to improve its bilateral relations, but to convince the Chinese population that a fantasized West is opposed to it and that the only recourse is the Party. The objective is, therefore, to strengthen the legitimacy of the political system by all means, in particular by seeking to discredit other political systems and to artificially increase the perception of an external threat.

We have political differences with China, and both Beijing and the other capitals do not want to compromise on certain interests that are considered fundamental. Fair enough. But resorting to this hyper-aggressiveness only makes bilateral cooperation in key areas more complicated, if not impossible. We see this in Europe with the issue of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), which China supports, but which, quite honestly, and given the current situation, cannot be voted on by the European Parliament.