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Sino-Dutch Relations from 2020-Today: Enter Geopolitics

Dragon Fighting with a Lion by Leonardo Da Vinci

2021 marked the 50th anniversary of Sino-Dutch diplomatic relations. Yet it may not be cause for celebration. This coincides with a time when the bilateral relationship is seen to be increasingly navigating rough waters, as geopolitical and public health questions have come to dominate political minds. Examining the status of Sino-Dutch relations is therefore both timely and important. Key when looking at Sino-Dutch relations today is the asymmetrical importance of the relationship for these two actors. Reflecting that asymmetry, the status of the bilateral relationship will be presented from both differing national perspectives.

China’s View of the Bilateral Relationship: Too Small to Count?

First, the Sino-Dutch relationship appears far more insignificant for China than for the Netherlands. Logically this makes sense, the Netherlands is in population, geographical size and absolute economic strength microscopic compared to China. et, there are two key Chinese interests in the relationship that can be identified and that drive Chinese engagement with the Netherlands today. These are: 1) chipmaking technology, and 2) the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) and trade.

China has expressed considerable interest in the Dutch company ASML over the years, due to its leading position in the global chipmaking industry. But it is not alone - the US has exerted its influence repeatedly over the years to block cooperation between ASML and Chinese companies over fears of technology theft and related security concerns (ETNC, 2021; HCSS, 2020; Teer, 2022; Van der Putten, 2021). As recent as July 2021, the Biden Administration reached out to Dutch officials and asked the Netherlands to restrict sales of chipmaking machines to China, a continuation of Trump-era policy on the matter (Woo & Jie, 2021). Following a visit to ASML that same year, Ambassador Zhang Ming, Head of the Chinese Mission to the EU, euphemistically stated: "The well-known ASML in the Netherlands told me regretfully that the collaborative project they were eager to accomplish was artificially stifled.”[1] The use of “人为” for “artificial” here is more likely than not an intentional hint at US pressure. As it stands, China has made little to no progress on this point.

When it comes to trade, the Netherlands was a strong supporter of the CAI at the start of negotiations (Kaag, 2021a, 2021b). This changed, however, when China sanctioned Dutch parliamentarian Sjoerd Sjoerdsma in March 2021 for his characterization of Chinese actions in Xinjiang as genocide (外交部, 2021a). From that moment on the Netherlands could not but oppose CAI and support freezing the agreement’s ratification (De Bruijn, 2022; Schreinemacher, 2021). Nonetheless, the vocabulary used by the Chinese in describing high-level meetings between Dutch and Chinese officials has changed little if at all following these setbacks. Between January 2020-March 2022, nearly all Chinese MOFA reports of such meetings have continued to focus almost exclusively on economic cooperation, with China repeatedly stating its dedication “to enhancing the bilateral relationship through an open attitude and a pragmatic spirit”[2] (外交部, 2020a, 2020b, 2020c, 2021c, 2022a, 2022b, 2022d).

It would appear that neither the freezing of CAI, nor the Netherlands’ legislation condemning Chinese actions in Xinjiang, which has been referred to as “fake news’ turning into ‘fake law"[3] in China, nor a lack of progress in acquiring the Netherlands’s chipmaking technology have deterred China from continuing to engage with the Netherlands economically and try to strengthen ties with its second largest European trade partner (外交部, 2022c).

The Netherlands’ View of the Bilateral Relationship: “Cooperation Where Possible, Protection Where Necessary”

As previously indicated, the bilateral relationship is of far greater importance in the Netherlands than in China, and understandably so. While China may be interested in the Netherlands for trade and its chipmaking technology, the Netherlands poses no threat to the Chinese way of life. For the Netherlands, this is not the case. From roughly 2018 onwards the Netherlands’ perception of China has become increasingly securitized (Thompson et al., 2021), as is exemplified by the Netherlands’ publication of its 2019 policy memorandum on Sino-Dutch relations and its Indo-Pacific Strategy in November 2020. Where the former emphasized the Netherlands’ need to protect Dutch, democratic rule of law, the openness of Dutch society, its liberal economy, and the Netherlands’ security vis-à-vis China[4], the Dutch Indo-Pacific Strategy noted a rapid national, geopolitical and geo-economic shift towards the Indo-Pacific. It also explicitly mentioned the Netherlands’ deep interest in international, cyber- and maritime security in the Indo-Pacific (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2020). These positions are in line with the Indo-Pacific strategies of countries such as France and Germany, and have been a building block for the EU’s common Indo-Pacific Strategy (EEAS, 2021; Federal Foreign Office, 2020; Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs, 2019).

Correspondence between Dutch ministers and representatives in the House reflect this shift towards the securitization of the relationship between the Netherlands and China as well. Whether they be discussions on trade and investment [5], educational exchanges [6], defense [7] or general foreign policy [8], their tone towards China has become more critical, defensive and hesitant. It is abundantly clear that in the Netherlands, whether it be in the executive or the legislative branch, attitudes towards China are on a downwards trajectory and have been for several years. This may in part explain Chinese diplomats’ emphasis on “an open attitude and pragmatic spirit,” as mentioned before. It may be their way to try and keep a close relationship with the Dutch, as the Netherlands and Europe drift further away and try to define their own geostrategic position in the post-COVID world.

Over this same period, public attitudes towards China have deteriorated considerably within the Netherlands as well (ETNC, 2021). Just between February and September 2020, the number of Dutch who view China as a security threat rose by 11 percentage points, from 35% to 46%, at the same time 83% said they found the Chinese government reprehensible for its human rights and privacy violations, up 11 percentage points, 60% disagreed with the statement that “the Chinese regime’s performance is actually not so bad, since it is lifting over a billion people out of poverty,” up 14 percentage points, and 42% disagreed with the idea that Chinese investment present an opportunity to the Netherlands, up 5 percentage points (Van Der Putten et al., 2021, pp. 8–9). As Van Der Putten et al. (2021) stated, the exact reasons for these deteriorating views are as of yet unclear, but the COVID-19 pandemic’s origins in Wuhan, as well as media coverage of the humanitarian situation in Xinjiang and the Hong Kong national security law, are likely to be the (partial) culprits of this downturn in public opinion.


The bilateral relationship between China and the Netherlands has in recent years become increasingly informed by ideological differences and security concerns, particularly on the side of the Netherlands. Though China has tried to maintain good, practical relations, the Netherlands has politically and socially drifted away from China and set up the conditions for greater geopolitical and geo-economic competition with what the Netherlands has come to firmly regard as a revisionist and threatening state. There is no doubt that the Netherlands will continue to cooperate with China - at least, where politically and ethically feasible -, but the number of issues that will be affected by moral or security concerns is guaranteed to increase in the years to come.

[1] “荷兰著名的ASML遗憾地告诉我,他们渴望完成的合作项目被人为扼杀” (张明, 2021).

[2] See for example: “中荷要继续本着开放态度和务实精神深化合作” (外交部, 2022c).

[3] “‘假新闻’开始转变成‘假法律’的表演” (外交部, 2021b).

[4] “Het kabinet staat pal voor (het beschermen van) de Nederlandse rechtsstaat, onze open samenleving en economie en onze veiligheid” (Blok, 2019, p. 2).

[5] “De opkomst van een macht als China biedt vele economische kansen, maar brengt ook veiligheidsrisico’s.” (Ministerie van Defensie, 2020, p. 49) & “Voor bepaalde kritieke grondstoffen geldt een afhankelijkheid tot 98% van China. Dat is in een onvoorspelbare geopolitieke context niet wenselijk” (Adriaansens, 2022, p. 2). See also (Kaag, 2021a, 2021b; Ollongren & Van der Maat, 2022).

[6] “In de samenwerking met China dienen de instellingen een afweging te maken tussen de kansen die academische samenwerking met Chinese kennisinstellingen biedt en de risico’s die deze samenwerking met zich mee kan brengen.” (Van Engelshoven, 2020, p. 3) See also (D’hooghe & Dekker, 2020).

[7] “De geopolitieke verhoudingen verharden en dreigingen nemen toe in aantal, variëteit en complexiteit. […] Grote spelers als Rusland en China moderniseren hun krijgsmachten en net als landen als Iran en Noord- Korea plegen ze (proxy-)aanvallen op andere landen” (Ministerie van Defensie, 2020, p. 10).

[8] “China [wijst] als economische en militaire mogendheid de ordening af zoals die na de Tweede Wereldoorlog is ontstaan. […] China en Rusland zijn revisionistische grootmachten met een ander waardenpatroon. Er lijkt bovendien sprake te zijn van een toenemende samenwerking tussen beide landen, hetgeen Europa en de VS voor extra uitdagingen stelt. […] China probeert onder de vlag van het ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ zijn politieke en economische invloed in grote delen van de wereld uit te breiden en richt zich onder meer met een offensief cyberprogramma tegen Europese belangen.” (Hoekstra, 2022, p. 17)



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