Has the pandemic sparked a panic about China? A survey for the British Foreign Policy Group has found that levels of fear and suspicion about the multiple threats posed by the People’s Republic are now at record levels. Among respondents aged 55 and above, more than half see China as a “critical threat”, while the average for all age groups who share this perception is 41 per cent. Last year that figure was 30 per cent.
But this is no mere panic. Our rising anxiety has other causes besides Covid: Hong Kong, Huawei, the Uighurs — the list goes on. These, unlike speculation about the origins of the pandemic in Wuhan, are facts. China’s aggressive military posture is matched by its commercial exploitation and its insatiable appetite for intelligence. Under Xi Jinping, the image of what will soon be the largest global economy has changed from that of a partner for trade and investment to a belligerent surveillance state.
Both sides, moreover, are battening down the hatches: witness Beijing’s banning of BBC news as a tit-for-tat response to Ofcom’s revocation of the licence for China Global Television Network to broadcast in the UK. The more that the Western media shines a spotlight on the Chinese Communist Party’s attempts to suppress dissent at home or to meddle with democracy abroad, the more stridently Beijing hits back with its own propaganda offensives.
No wonder the British public is losing its taste for exploring what China has to offer. The Foreign Policy Group survey found that only 22 per cent support economic engagement with China and 15 per cent want no engagement of any kind. Only on global challenges, such as climate change, do a significant proportion — 38 per cent — of Britons want to see co-operation with Beijing.
In policy terms, however, public opinion presents the Government with a paradox: while there is strong support for challenging China on human rights, there is little appetite for any form of military or diplomatic pivot to Asia. Only 18 per cent of respondents approve of plans for naval deployment to the Indo-Pacific theatre, while just 8 per cent think the region should become central to British foreign policy. Half of all women, in particular, reject any rebalancing towards Asia. The public, it seems, wants politicians to “stand up to China”, but is reluctant to give them the means to do so.
Britain is not unique in its concerns about China. Similar shifts of opinion are taking place throughout the West and beyond. This is not an outbreak of anti-Chinese racism or Sinophobia, akin to the prewar “Yellow Peril”. Nor is the being deliberately whipped up by shadowy intelligence agencies in Washington, London or elsewhere. There is, unfortunately, nothing irrational about the sinister impression of Beijing that has now crystallised at both elite and popular levels: China really is the greatest long-term threat to the West.
What, then, is to be done about it? The immediate security issue is Taiwan. The Chinese military have stepped up preparations for enforcing its territorial claims on the island. The example of Hong Kong, where Beijing in effect tore up its treaty with the UK, has rattled the Taiwanese, who have been given new weapons by the US. The Biden administration has yet to announce new measures to deter an invasion from the mainland, but it shows no sign of backing down. Its naval presence in the Indo-Pacific is due to be reinforced by a newly resurrected 1st Fleet, probably based at Singapore, to join the 7th Fleet based in Japan.
In The Times, the distinguished columnist and former foreign correspondent Roger Boyes argues (behind a paywall) that Biden has can no longer “inhabit the realm of strategic ambiguity” but must find new ways — short of unleashing World War Three — of raising the cost to Beijing of any attempt to seize Taiwan by force. Boyes warns that the crunch may come only a year hence, between March and May 2022. This is the season when China’s two million-strong army could cross the strait and it also coincides with Xi’s elevation to the symbolic title of “Chairman” — a status that only the founder of the People’s Republic, Mao Zedong, has hitherto enjoyed. Taiwan was the place where, at the end of the Chinese Civil War, the defeated Nationalists led by ex-President Chiang Kai-shek took refuge in 1949. The temptation to complete Mao’s unfinished revolution will be strong for Chairman Xi.
Boyes cites an important paper by Robert D Blackwill and Philip Zelikow, published in the US by the Council on Foreign Relations. It proposes that the Biden administration should reassure Beijing that it is not about to alter Taiwan’s diplomatic status by granting full recognition, but should meanwhile work with allies to deter aggression and help the Taiwanese to defend themselves. This is doubtless the right way forward for the new President, but who will come to his aid? Certainly not the European Union, which includes most of America’s Nato allies, and which has shown no desire to challenge China, let alone become embroiled in the defence of the Pacific. Australia, South Korea and Japan would join a coalition of the willing, but they are not strong enough on their own to make Beijing think twice. Only nuclear powers really have the weight to do that.
This is why Britain matters more to Washington than the mood of post-Brexit pessimism in London foreign policy circles would suggest. The UK can offer practical deterrence in the shape of the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers. Beyond that, however, the British can help to bring about a deal between the US and the other rising superpower in the region: India.
It is not just the historical and cultural Anglo-Indian connections that give London an important, indeed unique, potential role here. Some figures in the BJP, the ruling party which dominates Indian politics, are sceptical about the legacy of the Raj and even about the English language that remains India’s only lingua franca. But the personal ties between the British and Indian elites — exemplified by Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Tory heir apparent — give Boris Johnson an opportunity to mediate between Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalists and Joe Biden’s liberal internationalists.
If India can be persuaded to take the Chinese threat to Taiwan seriously, it would be a strategic game-changer. There is no chance of China taking on a coalition of the world’s leading military power and another Asian giant whose population will soon exceed China’s. The dangerous illusion of the Chinese that the United States is a declining empire that can be forced to withdraw from the Far East would be replaced by a reversion to the Realpolitik of Deng Xiaoping.
However, if Washington is to pull off such a coup de main, it needs the British to play a newly global role as honest brokers. The stakes are high. As Boyes points out, if Biden were to lose Taiwan, he would “end up looking as weak as any President since Jimmy Carter”. And who is to say that the Republicans, despite their travails in the aftermath of the Trump fiasco, may not have a new Ronald Reagan waiting in the wings?
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