May 2023

Strategic shades of grey

Voters in Western democracies can be forgiven for any misunderstanding on what is unfolding between China and their governments.

With focus (and funding) switching from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific, a daily digest of news and analysis is ramping up the China threat.  One moment this Marxist-Leninist dictatorship is about to invade Taiwan. The next it is worming its way into our private lives through Tik Tok.

Thankfully, now, Europe is taking a lead in resisting the more hawkish talk, first with French President Emanuel Macron’s visit to Beijing, followed by British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly stating unequivocally that Britain would continue to ‘engage closely and regularly with China, because it would be really, really, really counterproductive not to do so’.

‘China is big, it’s influential, it’s important,’ he added.

This European pushback coincided with China’s latest intimidating military exercises around Taiwan,signalling that the West needs to get its act together to face up to the reality of a rising China. 

Differences among Western democracies on geopolitical issues is nothing new.  American politics prefer good-against-evil clarity, whereas Europe, routinely picking itself up from the rubble of war, is more at home with shades of grey. 

Yet should Sino-American acrimony worsen, Europe and North America would have to work (or even fight) together to protect their values, ways of life and economies. Their absence of strategy has now become Beijing’s biggest opportunity.

It is crucial, therefore, that politiciansunderstand and can relay to voters a more nuanced portrayal of China. 

For example, as America shot down a Chinese intelligence balloon last month, the two countries reported record bilateral trade figures. The balloon made headlines. Trade did not.

Three hundred thousand Chinese students study in America. China is the country’s biggest supplier of goods.  Apple’s ubiquitous iPhone is mostly made there.

One of the world’s busiest airfreight hubs is Anchorage International Airport in far-flung Alaska, a remote mid-point between Beijing and Washington. Anticipating a continued increase in trade, Chinese cargo companies have made significant long-term investments there.

That fashionable phrase ‘de-coupling’ may sound exciting during a political campaign in search of an enemy. But it would be near impossible to achieve in practice without catastrophic damage to the global economy.

Taiwan is now the most referenced flashpoint of possible Indo-Pacific conflict, portrayed as a cause worth fighting for because it is a plucky island community which has proved that democracies can flourish in Asian societies. 

But buried in that narrative is that Taiwan’s success is largely reliant on its trade with China, particularly in the field of technology.

Taiwanese-made computerchips go to Chinese factories producing smart phones that are flown through Anchorage to the North American market. Such a system is replicated for hundreds, if not thousands of other products.

China’s entwined trade relationship with Taiwan has been built over decades. It is based on a trust, underpinned by clear red lines. Taiwan does not declare independence; the US does not recognise Taiwan as an independent state; China does not attempt to invade.

This long-standing arrangement recently began to crack because Beijing has Taiwan in its recent ‘wolf warrior’ policy of aggressive expansion that has also taken in South China Sea military bases, incursions against India and crackdowns in Hong Kong.

In the past year it has conducted two serious military exercises thatthreaten Taiwan’s existence. But they are not part of any random lashing out: each had an identifiable trigger.

The first, in August 2022, came with the visit of Nancy Pelosi, then Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, to Taiwan. The trigger forthe second last month was the meeting in California between Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and the new House Speaker, Kevin McCarthy. 

China’s point is that such meetings between political figures indicate diplomatic recognition.

Nowthat points have been made on both sides, it is time for these two countries to step back and reflect on their positions. Military exercises are fraught with risk of miscalculation and are best carried out away from increased political tension.

To some, President’s Macron’s Beijing visit indicates the sycophancy of an appeaser. But Macron also came with a message that the West remains the trading market that has made China a global power.  Xi Jinping would be madto bite the hand that has helped create modern China.

As Britain has stated its intention to strengthen relations with China, so the US should offer reassurancesthat it does not want to engineer the overthrow of the Beijing regime.  The notion that the West can thrive on the Chinese Communist Party’s collapse is adangerous fantasy, as is the myth that China could take the lead from America in running the current world order.

There is no resemblance between the rivalry with China and that which the West has faced with Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya or even Russia. China is a different animal altogether, an inevitably rising power with an alternate system of government.

That doesn’t mean there has to be a fight. But to avoid one, there does need to be a strategy.