It is necessary to know some history in order to draw the right lessons from it. All too often, alleged parallels and similarities seem far-fetched on close examination. So, when it was suggested recently that China’s recent behavior – bullying, lying, and violating treaties – was similar to that of Germany prior to World War I, I was doubtful.
In 1911, for example, Germany’s Wilhelm II provoked an international crisis by deploying a gunboat to Agadir, Morocco to try to squeeze concessions out of France and drive a wedge between that country and Britain. Instead, the episode convinced France and Britain of Germany’s aggressive intentions – a conclusion borne out three years later by the outbreak of war.
Maybe it is too pessimistic to draw similar conclusions today about the behavior of the Communist Party of China (CPC). But the events of the last few months surely call for a coordinated response by the rest of the world, and especially by liberal democracies. If Chinese President Xi Jinping’s aggressive behavior is to be discouraged, we need to get together and stick together.
The list of China’s transgressions is long. While the rest of the world has been distracted by a pandemic that spread in part because of the CPC’s secrecy and lies, China has increased its military threats against Taiwan and reneged on treaty-based promises to respect Hong Kong’s traditional freedoms under the rule of law.
Xi’s regime has also harassed other countries’ ships in the South China Sea, which China claims as its own despite rulings against it by an international tribunal in The Hague. And most recently, Chinese forces ambushed and killed Indian soldiers on the countries’ disputed Himalayan border.
All the while, China has maintained its policy of economic extortion, issuing mafia-style threats to international companies to accept its own narrative of current and past events as the price of doing business. And when countries have the temerity to cross China’s government (for example, by seeking an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19), it imposes economic and trade sanctions against them.
So, what should the rest of the world do?
First, we should reject the idea that trying to deter or prevent this sort of behavior amounts to Sinophobia. It is not hostility to China that should motivate us, but rather a desire to push back in a measured and coherent way against the aggression of Xi and the CPC.
Second, we should be more clear-sighted about the nature of what is happening and what needs to be done.
I recently heard one of China’s apologists in the United Kingdom, a prominent cheerleader for the earlier so-called golden age of Sino-British relations, say that it would be wrong for Britain to “pick a fight” with China while trying to engineer a post-pandemic recovery. But it is the CPC that is picking a fight with us – and particularly with those of us who believe in the value of the “liberal democracy” that Xi denounced in his instructions to party and government officials back in 2013.
We should of course try to work with China in areas where global cooperation is vital, such as tackling climate change and addressing the threat of antimicrobial resistance. But in doing so, we need to remember that China regularly breaches or distorts the agreements it signs, for example on trade, investment, intellectual property, and the international health regulations that were negotiated after the 2002-03 SARS outbreak.
Beyond that, what should a country like the UK do?
For starters, as Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee has argued, there should be a central body under the prime minister that provides an informed focus for UK policy regarding China.
As part of this effort, we need to commission research on who benefits most from Chinese investment in the UK and from our bilateral trade, where China runs a huge surplus. We should prevent Chinese firms’ predatory purchase of British and other Western technology companies and seek to be as independent of China as possible in new digital technologies. More generally, we should identify which sectors depend on inputs from China, diversify our purchases where that is possible, and, where it is not, make more of these products ourselves.
We should also look again at our higher-education funding model, which has become far too dependent on recruiting Chinese students, and try to recruit more from elsewhere in Asia and Africa.
Having thus provided ourselves with robust answers to the CPC’s “useful idiots” who define the UK’s national interest on China’s terms, we should seek to coordinate our approach to Xi with other liberal democracies – including India, Japan, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, our European Union allies, and the United States. Forming a wide compact of this sort will be easier when there is once again a US president who believes in alliances. And in due course, the US will hopefully return to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact and broaden it to include countries like the UK.
The aim is not to start another cold war, but to practice what the late Gerald Segal called “constrainment” vis-à-vis China. Liberal democracies must defend their belief in a global order based on credible international agreements and the rule of law. So, although we should be prepared to offer China incentives for good behavior, we must be prepared to deter bad behavior vigorously.
Above all, we must not allow China the opportunity to divide and rule. The world’s democracies must unite and openly show Xi’s regime exactly what we stand for.
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