China: the long view
The challenge posed by the world’s first autocratic techno superpower has been laid bare over the past month, as has the dithering by once unified Western democracies on how to deal with it.
Despite two decades or more in which it could have prepared, the West is now divided as to exactly what sort of nation China is, what benefits it offers or threats it poses to Western values and power.
As the chair of Britain’s parliamentary Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Tom Tugendhat, accurately and succinctly put it, ‘We are in dire need of a proper China strategy. What is it that we want out of China?’
Tugendhat’s advice rings truer when we recall that a proper Soviet strategy led to a peaceful end to the Cold War, while a lack of strategy with Germany ended in two world wars.
Examples of disarray over how to deal with China routinely unfold.
On February 15th, US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper used the Munich Security Conference to name China unequivocally as the primary threat to global stability. On the same day, it was revealed that Britain had been negotiating with Beijing to build its first high speed rail link, the controversial HS2 project, claiming a Chinese company could do it cheaper and in less time.
A week earlier, Britain had given the green light for the tech giant Huawei’s involvement in its new 5G communication network, despite Huawei being banned in the United States becauseit is seen as a security threat.
All this unfolded as Beijing used its dictatorial powers to fight the spread of the coronavirus, sealing off cities and confining people to their homes with a heavy hand that would be inconceivable within a Western democracy.
So should we praise it or condemn?
China has been able to act decisively against this threat of a global pandemic, precisely because it has a political system and technology designed to carry out sweeping surveillance and keep its citizens in check against their will.
They include some million who are in re-education camps in the western Muslim province of Xinjiang, hauled in for an indefinite period of confinement for crimes as small as praying or calling a friend.
Huawei and other Chinese companies that sell their expertise and products to the West are intricately woven into this system.
Western governments have no cohesive plan on what to do, one that needs to encompass both pragmatism and values.
The situation has become even more precarious because of the wider economic and social impact of coronavirus.
The Chinese economy has already been battered by the US trade war and foreign companies moving out. China’s tourist industry, one of the hardest hit by the coronavirus, directly employs almost 30 million people. In manufacturing, supply chains are being ruptured to the extent that Hyundai, the world’s fifth biggest automaker, stopped production at a South Korean factory because of lack of parts from China.
Beijing’s dampening economy, increasingly heavy-handed surveillance and US pigeon-holing as a high-risk enemy have the elements of a perfect storm, making it all the more urgent for the West to bring together a workable long-term strategy.
Elements of China’s rise bear some similarity to modern history, but nothing that matches exactly.
It is not the Soviet Union of the 1950s although components of its infrastructure-building, authoritarianism and expansion through Asia and beyond match some of the vision of Joseph Stalin and his successors.
Nor is it Germany in the 1910s or 1930s. But we should note that Germany’s rise in the early 20th century ended with the First World War and Europe’s failure to secure a lasting peace led to the economic downturn of a recovering Germany, a lashing out, ethnic cleansing, territorial expansion and the Second World War.
It is time, therefore, that Western governments looked far beyond the short-term benefits of getting this or that contract with China and agree on what they think they are dealing with.
America has taken a lead and laid down a policy that needs to be refined and edited. It should include measures of both engagement and containment. It could be adopted by unified Western democracies and, most importantly, explained to voters.
It is alarming that in questioning the high-speed rail negotiations and Britain’s China policy, Tom Tugendhat says, ‘The cost to our sovereignty could be higher than we ever imagined. There is no point in taking back control from Brussels only to hand it over to Beijing.’
We would be wise to heed his words.