The possibility of establishing a dual-track world to reflect the divergent values of Chinese and Western systems was among views expressed at The Democracy Forum’s May 22 online seminar, at which leading academics and international relations specialists debated the extent to which China may be held accountable for the COVID-19 pandemic, and implications for its foreign policy and internal stability.
Former BBC Asia correspondent Humphrey Hawksley, who chaired the event, spoke of pushback against expanding Chinese influence, increasing talk of a new Cold War, and how COVID-19 is acting as ‘a catalyst to re-order our thoughts’ vis-à-vis the Chinese-reliant supply chain to which the world has become so accustomed.
Reflecting on the Communist Party’s initial reaction to the coronavirus crisis and China’s domestic and overseas propaganda, panellist Charles Parton OBE, a Senior Associate Fellow at London’s RUSI think tank, considered whether the pandemic has affected the stability of the regime, for which ‘politics will always come before people’ as it seeks legitimacy through means such as ensuring prosperity and claiming that China has regained its territorial integrity. The crisis has revealed how the ‘all-competent’ government attaches blame for poor decisions to local officials, never the centre, said Parton. However, although there was initial diminution of trust in the CPC, the party had gained ground as it switched its domestic propaganda towards talk of economic recovery, while external propaganda focused on what China saw as its superior handing of the crisis compared with Western nations, and sabre-rattling over Taiwan.
COVID-19 has not, as predicted by some, become ‘China’s Chernobyl’, said Parton, who did not foresee splits in its leadership, though it faces economic problems as a result of the pandemic and there is room for future instability in a nation that he did not believe will be the – or even a – superpower of the 21st century. In conclusion, Parton said that if the COVID crisis has taught us one thing, it is that we need a new strategy on China and should not be putting our trust in the CPC, though we do need to work together to minimise divergence in an interconnected world.
We can neither do everything China wants, nor can we ignore it, urged Rana Mitter, Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China at Oxford University. It is time to ‘stop playing games with China’ as, in a post-Brexit world, Britain and other liberal democracies will need a ‘good but robust and clear relationship with China’. Mitter looked at the ‘potent mixture’ of Marxist-Leninism, traditional culture, and its roles as a leading actor in the global south, and within history, which informs China’s view of itself and its wider role in the world. While he did not agree with its non-liberal stance – unlike democratic nations such as Taiwan and South Korea, China has not, for historical reasons, chosen the path of Confucian liberalism – it was, said Mitter, authentic.
He acknowledged the damage done to China’s reputation in the global south by the COVID-19 pandemic, and by ‘debt diplomacy’ brought about by its BRI projects, though he also highlighted parts of the world, including in Africa and Latin America, where China has made a good impression by bringing investments. But, despite the positive view within China of how the COVID crisis has been handled, it has ultimately harmed China’s reputation in the wider world.
Veerle Nouwens, a Research Fellow at RUSI, discussed the ‘severe economic and diplomatic fallout’ suffered by China due to the COVID crisis (despite the country bringing it under control domestically), which will shape its future foreign policy. She addressed the need for EU countries to be more proactive in offering assistance to COVID-hit neighbours, to fill gaps into which China can easily step. China has used its gestures of goodwill to deflect attention from its seemingly delayed initial response to the coronavirus outbreak, said Nouwens, and, as well as offering carrots, it has also wielded a stick in, for example, its aggressive ‘wolf-warrior diplomacy’ in defending China’s image and threatening economic penalties for some nations that do not fall in line, though this depends on their bilateral relationships prior to COVID.
Nouwens also looked at military exercises carried out by the PLA in the East and South China Sea, Taiwan, the border with India and elsewhere, and wondered if this was business as usual, or a precursor to more concerted military action by China in its region, to regain the strategic upper hand as other countries are distracted by the pandemic. She also addressed China’s global BRI projects, how these will impact on its foreign policy, and how they will be prioritised in the wake of COVID. South East Asian nations are, she concluded, wary of China whilst wanting its investment, so they will keep ‘one eye open’ in their dealings with it.
For Kerry Brown, Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London, the aftermath of the pandemic – during which very different political systems have struggled equally to cope with the challenges – is likely to be a ‘fragmented globalisation’ as the world alters geopolitically once the worst of the crisis is over. Addressing the growing tension between China and the US, which has been intensified by the COVID crisis, he said we are moving towards a ‘dual-track world’ in which we must accept change as part of a new global infrastructure, which will include working together on issues such as healthcare and climate change. We will have to navigate this new ‘two-storey house’, said Brown, and manage the aspirations of these two huge entities – the US and China – which can neither ignore nor embrace each other.
Brown also stressed the need to ask tough questions about how we frame discourse on China. Britain has never really had its own policy towards China, but it will have to rethink this, given that it has now left the EU and its US trading partner faces huge economic difficulties. China is therefore the one entity with which Britain might be able to create new growth. As a result, all ‘bellicose rhetoric’ about China must be ‘taken with a pinch of salt’, as we face a stark choice: deal with China, or face catastrophic economic consequences.
In summing up, TDF chair Barry Gardiner MP reminded the audience that control of information and blocking of accountability was not limited to China, and that the West should take a pluralist view of China’s non-liberalism, as long as it is non-expansionist. He also cautioned against any ‘blame game’, highlighting the importance of working together in an interlinked world, to respond to great global challenges such as pandemics and climate change.