RE: Divide and Rule

February 22, 2018

Originating in the political thought of Caesar and Machiavelli, perfected by the British Empire’s world-spanning colonial commonwealth, divide et impera seems to have not yet lost its appeal. Its premise is simple: provide a community within a population preferential treatment to sow division among the others. Next, capitalize on said division to pursue your interests. An approach as effective as it has proven poisonous for the societies it has targeted.[1] Now the EU should be wary: State-backed Chinese firms have propped up their investments in Hungary and Greece, arguably undermining the Union’s response vis-à-vis assertive Chinese behavior in East Asia and beyond. A pattern which has already played out in Southeast Asia’s prime intergovernmental organization, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The European Union has come a long way in strengthening its ability to speak with one voice in foreign affairs.[2] How can Brussels now make sure to actually do so – to not be divided nor ruled, dodging history’s boomerang.


Breaking up the Blocs: The Case of ASEAN and the EU

Founded in 1967, ASEAN brings together China’s neighbors in the Southeast. It features a flag, a holiday (August 8) and a slogan: “One Vision, One Identity, One Community.”[3]. Recently, though, ASEAN has been displaying some identity issues: In the summer of 2016, the United Nation’s Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled[4] against China and in favor of the Philippines, an ASEAN member, in the case of maritime disputes in the South China Sea.[5] The Court’s ruling was unsurprisingly ignored by Beijing but also by ASEAN, which did not step up to defend a member state’s interest. Why?

The institution features a consensus-based voting system, a single dissenter mutes the organization’s voice – divide to rule. Since the summer of 2016, the dissenter has been Cambodia, a country of 15 million people led by an autocrat, Prime Minister Hun Sen. His grip on power has solidified over the years, even amid scrutiny from Western donors.[6] A match made in geopolitical heaven: Since the UN ruling, China has offered Cambodia $600m in aid, and in return Cambodia has blocked at least several times ASEAN statements criticizing China.”[7]

ASEAN remained quiet amid the ruling from The Hague, and so did another supra-national institution 8000 km to the West. “The EU does not take a position on sovereignty aspects relating to claims,”[8] read the non-statement from the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Federica Mogherini. An outcome largely attributed to Beijing “successfully leverag[ing] its economic ties to some Central and South-eastern European member-states – including Hungary and Greece.”[9] A year later, in June 2017, Greece single-handedly blocked a EU resolution in the UN Human Rights Council criticizing China’s human rights record; a first-timer.[10]

In Greece, funding under the European Stability Mission has been linked to privatization of extensive swaths of the country’s state-owned industry and infrastructure.[11] At the same time, the Eastern Mediterranean Sea is a central point of entry for China’s US$600 Billion “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure initiative.[12] In 2016, the Chinese shipping company COSCO acquired the Greek government’s majority share of the port of Piraeus. Starting in Athens, goods are planned to travel North via a US$2.9 Billion railway project linking Belgrade and Budapest. In 2012, Hungary’s president Victor Orban announced a policy of “Eastern Opening:” a pivot of Hungary’s economic focus to East Asia.[13]


Internalizing Member State’s Grievances, Speaking with one voice

Decision-making in Phnom Penh, Athens, and Budapest seems to have followed a strikingly similar rational. With foreign investment bolstered by Beijing, governments softened or even blocked their regional institution’s posture regarding China. To prevent China from capitalizing on intra-European division, the EU should embrace its Southern and Eastern European member states’ push towards the East within an institutionalized framework. The EU-China Connectivity Platform (EUCCP), which aims at identifying “synergies between EU policies and projects and China’s “One Belt, One Road,”[14] is a first step. Still, the EUCCP does not address the main challenge to European cohesion: diverging intra-European interests. For countries hit heavily by the financial crisis as Greece, additional no-strings attached investment is an enticing prospect in an environment of restricted political maneuver. Therefore, to complement the EUCCP the EU should create an intra-European platform (IEP) where member states can address their stakes regarding cooperation with China.

The IEP would internalize individual member states’ interests and make them a common European cause by communicating the long-term ramifications of reduced EU cohesion.[15] Next, the IEP should advocate to firstly increase the EU’s cohesion funds and secondly to further shift their focus towards Eastern and Southern Europe. The money exists. Between 2014-2020 “the European Union will allocate over €325 billion […] to its cohesion policy.”[16] Additionally, the core of the so-called Juncker Plan, the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI) [17], could be mobilized even further. The EFSI aims at enhancing “private investment in projects which are strategically important for the EU”. As of mid-December 2017, €256 Billion of related investment has been recorded. With the right incentives from Brussels, projects under the umbrella of these funds could match Chinese investment to reduce individual member state’s reliance on investment decisions from Beijing.

Combined, these actions would prevent a fractionalization of the EU, generating strength through unity. This is crucial for two reasons. Firstly, it would reduce the impact of Chinese lobbying regarding EU foreign relations. The EU could, in turn, more strongly pursue its strategic interests in areas impacted by China’s increasing footprint, namely trade, sustainable development in Sub-Saharan Africa, Human Rights, or regional conflicts as in the South China Sea. Secondly, preventing intra-European polarization along economic and regional lines is, in and of itself, central to securing the future of the EU and creating a Union that works for all its members.



[1] An example is Sri Lanka: “The British colonial policy of divide and rule sowed the seeds of renewed tensions between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities after independence. Tamils, although well-educated, were given a disproportionate number of top jobs in the civil service by the British. Once the Sinhalese majority held sway, its politicians sought to redress the balance with populist but discriminatory policies against Tamils. […] In 1983, the country erupted into full scale communal violence “. BBC “Sri Lanka: The ethnic divide.” BBC, 2000.

[2] As late as 2008, the treaty of Lisbon created the role of HR/VP, combining the role of the High Representative of Foreign Affairs with the Vice Presidency of the Commission.

[3] ASEAN “About.” ASEAN, 2017. Accessible online via

[4] Permanent Court of Arbitration “The South China Sea Arbitration (The Republic of the Philippines vs. The People’s Republic of China).” The Hague, 2016.

[5] Council of Foreign Affairs “China’s Maritime Disputes.” Council of Foreign Affairs, 2013.

[6] Hannah Elten “Foreign Aid and Cambodian Power Plays.” The Policy Corner, 2017.

[7] Kynge, James, Haddou, Leila, and Peel, Michael “How China bought its way into Cambodia.” Financial Times Investigation, 2016.

[8] European Council, Council of the European Union “Declaration by the High Representative on behalf of the EU on the Award rendered in the Arbitration between the Republic of the Philippines and the People’s Republic of China.” Brussels, 2016.

[9] Korteweg, Rem “Europe and its South China Sea Dilemma.” Center for European Reform, 2016.

[10] Cumming-Bruce, Nick and Sengupta, Somini “In Greece, China Finds an Ally Against Human Rights Criticism.” The New York Times, 2017.

[11] The European Commission “The ESM Stability Support Program. Greece, First & Second Reviews, July 2017 Background Report.” Institutional Paper 064, p. 7. Brussels, 2017.

[12] European Union “One Belt, One Road. China’s regional integration initiative.” European Parliamentary Research Service, PE 586.608., 2016.

[13] Hutt, David “China’s Relationship With Hungary Is Being Tested As The EU And Russia Apply Pressure.” Forbes, 2017.

[14] The EUCCP was founded to increase the mutual exchange of goods, technology, and people between the EU and China. The EUCCP aims at creating “synergies between EU policies and projects and China’s “One Belt One Road” initiative, as well as between respective sources of funding, in the field of transport and other kinds of infrastructure “. Page 9f in European Union External Action Service “Elements for a new EU strategy on China.” European Commission, 2016.

[15] An approach, which for the EU bears the pitfall of being “held hostage” by individual Member States. To discuss this issue is beyond the scope of the article.

[16]  Three quarters of these 235 Billions will go to the European Regional Development Fund and the European Social Fund. European Parliament “European Regional Development Fund”. Brussels, 2017.

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Moritz Matzner

Moritz is part of The Policy Corner's editorial team in Paris. Before pursuing a MA in International Security at Sciences Po Paris and FU Berlin he studied political science at FU Berlin and the University of Chicago and worked as a journalist. Moritz likes to unveil political and economic interests when investigating a security environment and to connect financial flows, development assistance, and foreign policy.