Gui Congyou, China's ambassador to Sweden 2017-2021, did much to shape the Swedish public opinion of China in a negative way before Sweden's NATO application. (Picture: Embassy of China in Sweden website.)

Swedes have good reasons to be ”China hawks”

This text is written by Gunnar Hökmark, president of Stockholm Free World Forum (SFWF) and former Swedish Member of Parliament and Member of European Parliament, and Patrik Oksanen, senior fellow at SFWF and a member of Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences and Royal Swedish Society of Naval Sciences.

In the Foreign Policy Argument article: “Sweden Is the Land of Ikea, ABBA – and China Hawks” we have a hard time finding any relevant, factually correct arguments.

Stating that Swedes’ ”sharp views can’t be explained by any event in the Swedish-Chinese bilateral relationship” and then linking it to “the panic-stricken atmosphere in the country after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the rushed NATO application” is truly false facts and a false link of argumentation.

The sharp views on China are not new, and the opinion poll published in June 2023 from European Council on Foreign Relations is not catching anything that recently emerged in the Swedish public.

On the contrary, already in a PEW Research report from 2019 about global attitude, Sweden was runner-up in having the most negative views of China with 70 percent of the respondents having an unfavourable view of the country, second only to Japanese respondents on 85 percent.

The Swedish Foreign Policy institute found in 2020 that two-thirds of the Swedes held negative views of China and 80 percent distrusted the PRC. Of the 13 European countries in the study, Swedes had the most negative image of the PRC. This was noted in the report as a change that was then partly new, because almost 60 percent of the respondents said that their view of China had worsened in the past three years.

Screenshot from PEW Research survey 2023, showing the development of the public view of China in Sweden and selected Western democracies over time.

So what happened that “can’t be explained by any event in the Swedish-Chinese bilateral relationship” according to Frida Stranne and Trita Parsi, authors of the above mentioned Foreign Policy article?

In 2015, the Swedish citizen Gui Minhai was kidnapped by the PRC in Thailand and brought to China where he is still detained. This case had a huge impact on the Swedish public to realize what kind of ruler the dictator Xi Jinping is.

China was first mentioned in 2017 in the Swedish Security Service’s yearly report, named as a country being an intelligence threat. In 2018 it got a chapter on its own in the same report, where it was stated that Chinese activities are now on such a level that it can have consequences for security in Europe. Preemptive actions were asked both from enterprises and authorities to reduce vulnerabilities.

China has since then received yearly attention in the yearly report of both the Security Service and Military Intelligence in Sweden.

The former Chinese ambassador Gui Congyou’s attempts to foster the public discourse in Sweden by being a wolf warrior has been highlighted in international media coverage as well as in two reports (2020 and 2021) from us at SFWF where we have described in detail the public threats he made in interviews, on the Embassy official webpage and in direct emails to various politicians, journalists, experts and human rights activists.

We at SFWF have been, both as persons and as a think tank, attacked by the PRC. In one official statement, the Chinese embassy said “without them, democracy, freedom and human rights of the world would become better, and people around the world would live a better life!”.

This led to reactions from other Swedish think tanks in support, with demands on the Swedish Government to act.

Book publisher and Swedish citizen Gui Minhai was kidnapped by Chinese police in 2015 and have not been allowed to leave the country since. His current whereabouts are unknown. (Picture: Screenshot from forced confession on CCTV.)

Sweden has also banned the Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE from our 5G network because of security concerns, and Tiktok is not allowed on work phones at the Swedish Government Office.

And to that we can add the Beijing regime’s crushing of ”one country, two systems” in Hong Kong, the genocide against the Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region, the aggression against democratic Taiwan, the illegal police stations (also in Stockholm), economic blackmailing of Australia due to calls for independent investigation of Covid, just to mention a few things that might influence how Swedes view today’s China.

Another astonishing error is made when Frida Stranne and Trita Parsi are mixing up the Swedish National Security Strategy with the Swedish Defense Commission Security Analysis report from 2023, when making comparisons in mentions about climate change and China.

Comparing the US or German National Security Strategy with the Swedish Defense Commission is like saying apples and pears are like.

A national security strategy is a full spectrum security strategy, whereas the Defense commission report is dealing with security policy analysis for antagonistic threats with consequences for the Swedish total defense approach. Here climate change can be a driving force for future security policy threats – but climate doesn’t have an antagonistic agenda aimed at Sweden. The actual, and so far only, national security strategy of Sweden is from 2017 and mentions climate 23 times and China once.

The logic is also failing when it comes to the possibilities regarding peace mediating efforts as a member of NATO. For instance, we can look at neighbouring Norway’s successes as mediator in the Middle East, despite being a founding member of the alliance.

The description of Sweden in the article is misleading in general. Sweden’s tradition of non-alignment was formed by real politics with many exemptions that did not match the rhetoric of Swedish politics in the 1970’s and onwards, and it was definitely not the idealistic colors that Parsi and Stranne are painting.

Sweden sent one third of its Air Force fighters, with crews, to Finland in 1940. We scrapped our own Manhattan project in the 1960’s to get under the US nuclear umbrella, and in the 1970’s the head of our Navy’s pre-planned war time placement was in the United Kingdom just to mention a few well known facts.

Sweden’s ”hidden alliance” with NATO during the Cold War is well laid out by the leading security reporter Mikael Holmström’s book with the same name. Sweden joined the EU in 1995, became a NATO partner in 1994 and has since deepened the open cooperation with the alliance step by step.

We have also – before our NATO application – planned cooperation for beyond peace time with Finland.

The main reason for Sweden not joining NATO in 1949 was to give Finland a westbound lifeline. Finland was forced by the Paris Treaty of 1947 to cede ten percent of its territories to the USSR and pay huge war damages to Moscow. The following Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance of 1948 that Finland had to sign with the USSR created a huge risk that Finland would go the same way as Czechoslovakia if Sweden joined NATO.

To state that “very little debate was tolerated in public” after Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine in 2022 is an outright distortion of facts. Swedes wanting to join NATO have first started a debate on the topic back in the 1940’s, and then increasingly from the 1090’s and onwards.

But back then dominating Social Democratic Party – together with people like Parsi and Stranne – had no interest in the debate, and thus ignored it until Finland decided to join and Swedish popular support shifted and time became a factor for applying jointly and quickly with Finland.

Despite not being a NATO member, Sweden have had a long time defense cooperation with other Western democracies. Here Swedish soldiers together with Finnish and British colleagues during the military exercise BALTOPS 2015. (Picture: Defense Visual Information Distribution Service, Public Domain Dedication via Picryl)

So it is pretty obvious that Sweden being ”hawkish” on China has nothing to do with the NATO application after Russia’s renewed and full scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

And there are only two explanations; either Parsi and Stranne were totally unaware about the Swedish China debate and failed to do the absolute most basic research before putting up their arguments, or they are well aware but ignoring facts because it does not serve their political purpose of appeasing dictatorship.

Unfortunately this is not the first time this occurs when it comes to Stranne and Parsi, and they have received heavy criticism for both their book and opinion pieces in the Swedish debate due to similar argumentative errors. How they feel about that is reflected by the following wording in the recent Foreign Policy text; “critical analysis that does not directly comply with the official Swedish stance or the dominant media narrative is treated with suspicion if not outright vilified”.

The consistency of Parsi and Stranne’s argumentation is blaming the West for not having a unilateral appeasement approach towards aggressive authoritarian states. It is appeasement that has led us to where we are today when it comes to Russia. A more open debate and a “hawkish” approach would probably have saved the peace in Europe – let us not make the same mistake with China.

Being “hawkish” does not mean stop trading, stop engaging in diplomacy or stop talking. But it means stop being naive and stop not standing up for values and ideas that are the principles that the rule based order is resting on.

Even if Sweden is taking measures to better mitigate threats from China, Sweden has still not officially replaced the “competitive rival” with an “aggressor” label. There are thus still some steps, in policy changes, to be taken before Sweden qualifies as a truly hawkish on China.

If not accepting cyber attacks, intellectual property thefts, economic blackmailing, kidnapping of citizens and authoritarian state harassment of people in a democratic country is hawkish, then Swedes and many others have good reasons to be “hawks”.

Sweden might be ahead of the curve, but Germany as well as the EU are moving in the same direction. Which was clearly shown when Berlin – the week before Frida Stranne and Trita Parsi’s article was published – unveiled its first ever national Strategy on China, with stern warnings on China’s behaviour in the Taiwan Strait and the need to avoid economic dependence on China similar to the prior German dependence on Russian gas.

And all this has absolutely nothing to do with Sweden’s consideration of a potential second Donald Trump administration that Stranne and Parsi are also fantasizing about.

Gunnar Hökmark and Patrik Oksanen can both be reached via X (formerly knows as Twitter): @ghokmark and @patrikoksanen.