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Challenging China: Can a legislative alliance have leverage?

William Yang in Tokyo
February 20, 2023

The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China aims to coordinate democratic countries' responses to China. Political analysts, however, say there are limitations to the group's ability to formulate concrete measures.

Liz Truss and Scott Morrison at the symposium in Tokyo
IPAC, which includes former British Prime Minister Liz Truss (left) and former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (right), has been criticized by Chinese state media as being comprised of 'anti-China' forcesImage: Androniki Christodoulou/REUTERS

The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), an unofficial organization that includes lawmakers from around 30 countries, held a symposium last Friday in Tokyo, bringing together dozens of lawmakers from several democratic countries to call for tougher policies on China.

The meeting reflects IPAC's efforts to reform democratic countries' approaches to China, according to the group's founding statement. Founded in 2020, the group has been criticized by the Chinese state media as being comprised of "anti-China" forces, and several of its members have been sanctioned by Beijing in recent years.

IPAC, however, insists it is a "framing institution" creating a "phalanx of parliaments" to force a change in the global China conversation. "We seek to use the tools available to lawmakers to raise awareness, suggest policy, and shift the debate," said Luke de Pulford, IPAC's executive director. "In countries more economically exposed to China, IPAC has created conditions for MPs to speak up."

Some experts have said IPAC helps to improve the exchange of information across legislatures as countries consider responses to risks and challenges posed by the Chinese government. "In facing a more assertive China, such exchange helps to improve the information environment, and perhaps coordination could allow for a better safeguarding of interests," said Ian Chong, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore.

"Even if China is not behaving in a particularly assertive way, to be able to coordinate better and maybe even bargain on things collectively can allow better leverage. There is a logical reason for IPAC," he told DW.

Other analysts believe the existence of IPAC serves the purpose of sending messages to democratic countries that it's necessary for them to coordinate their efforts in finding a response to the challenges that China presents.

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"IPAC is very comprehensive in its focus, which includes China's threats on democracy, human rights, national security, trade and the rules-based order," said Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, an assistant professor at the National Dong Hwa University in Taiwan and a former political adviser in the European Parliament.

"The threat from China is present in all these areas…IPAC's existence also sends a message to Beijing, which is that there is a platform that brings together a great number of legislators across democracies and they are aware of the need to perceive the risks presented by China," she told DW.

Will IPAC's efforts have any concrete impact?

Political scientist Chong stressed that it's important not to overstate IPAC's ability. "Legislatures are supposed to review and extend oversight rather than to initiate," he told DW. "Legislatures tend to initiate far less in terms of policy breakthrough. In that regard, because IPAC is a body that deals with legislatures, it will by nature have a more passive position."

However, Ferenczy thinks parliamentary diplomacy has been an effective method in addressing threats from China.

"Being criticized openly is something Beijing doesn't appreciate, and from the European perspective, the European Parliament has been the leading entity pushing European institutions in the direction of being more willing to openly criticize China," she told DW. "The fact that some MEPs are in IPAC is another indication that parliamentary diplomacy has been a key platform."

But Ferenczy also added that since parliamentarians are not in the position of creating legally binding mechanisms, she thinks it's more important for lawmakers from democratic countries to focus on creating cooperation platforms. "It does contribute to the ongoing processes of rethinking relationships with China within democratic countries," she said.

Is IPAC too hawkish on China?

The alliance is characterized as "anti-China" by Chinese state media, but de Pulford insists IPAC's criticism of Beijing is aimed at the Chinese Communist Party, not the Chinese people or China. "If being hawkish means refusing to accept mass human rights abuses and the corruption of international rules, then Beijing will have made hawks of everyone by the end of the decade," he told DW.

Chong said some of the more vocal members in IPAC have helped raise important human rights concerns.

IPAC members in the United Kingdom last week initiated a campaign to oppose the planned visit by Erkin Tuniyaz, the governor of China's Xinjiang region. Following growing pressure, the UK's Foreign Office announced that Tuniyaz had canceled his trip to the UK, a move viewed as a victory by IPAC members.

Joe Biden and Xi Jinping at G20 meeting in November 2022
Chinese leader Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden met at the G20 Summit in Bali in NovemberImage: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Former European Parliament political adviser Ferenczy said that in the European context, some EU member states and lawmakers still have reservations toward IPAC's stance on China.

"The European Union entails a variety of views and ideas, and when there is still no convergence on how to address threats from China in the EU, the EU and a lot of member states are not completely at ease with embracing some views from IPAC," she told DW.

"IPAC has become very visible in democracies in a very short period of time, and as EU member states try to find ways to address the economic threats from China, I think that's where they might not be ready to embrace a platform such as IPAC," she said.

Edited by: Sou-Jie van Brunnersum