6 August 2020

Solving the Chinese puzzle: a classical liberal approach to post-pandemic relations with China

By Syed Kamall

Even before the outbreak of Covid-19 there was growing unease over the Chinese government’s suppression of dissent, human rights abuses, aggressive foreign policy, disregard of intellectual property rights violations, cyber-attacks, technology espionage and currency manipulation.

Concerns have since been compounded to the point where talk of a ‘new Cold War’ no longer seems hyperbolic. It would be generous to say that Chinese authorities were slow to notify the World Health Organization. Subsequent reports have pointed towards attempts at a cover-up.

China’s ‘face mask diplomacy’ – sending medical experts and equipment to countries in need – has done little to boost its image as a responsible global leader. The same could be said of its new generation of ‘wolf warrior’ diplomats, who have become increasingly aggressive in their language, accusing critics of concealing their own poor responses to the pandemic.

None of this is to mention the Chinese government’s egregious treatment of the Uighur population of Xinjiang, or its new national security law in Hong Kong. Less visibly, the Chinese military has become more assertive towards Taiwan, Vietnam and Malaysia, and killed Indian soldiers on their disputed border – the first military casualties there for more than four decades.

Combined, these actions are giving rise to fears that the Communist Party of China is the USSR incarnate. Some will argue – indeed, many already have – that similar approaches will need to be adopted in response to the modern equivalent of the Communist regimes of the former Soviet Union.

But a new paper by the Institute of Economic Affairs warns that while the current strategy of liberal internationalist engagement is no longer working, we should not see relations with China as a binary choice between containment and confrontation.

For a start, we need to revise our perceptions of the motivations of the Chinese government. We should view China’s diplomatic behaviour through the prism of “mianzi” or “saving face” – a concept intrinsically embedded in its culture. Rather than admit to wrongdoing or confess to mistakes, the Chinese government seeks to be seen as part of the solution.

We cannot overlook the fact that China’s aggressiveness in its neighbourhood may be partly explained by its determination to never again be dominated by foreign powers. Memories of actions by the British during the Opium Wars and Japanese occupations have yet to fade.

But we should also see the Chinese government’s actions in terms of seeking access to raw materials, technology, and markets for Chinese companies. While its “Belt and Road Initiative” to connect trade routes by building infrastructure – including in countries with unsavoury regimes – may challenge the good governance mantra of Western democracies, unlike the Soviet Union during the Cold War China will not seek to export its ideology.

In short, and contrary to many headlines, China is not seeking global hegemony in a unipolar world. Its goals are more subtle: it is competing to become the model or pattern nation that others look to emulate, particularly for developing nations. There will also be increased engagement in setting rules for the international trade and financial system. Outside its neighbourhood, China seeks to be free of rules determined by others, by becoming a rule-maker and an alternative model for development.

Should these goals invite an equally subtle response? Will confrontation and military competition suffice? Western nations and their allies will undoubtedly need to restrain sensitive trade and respond robustly to the Chinese government’s actions in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and against Asian neighbours.

But this approach should be supplemented with a programme of engagement between private individuals, organisations and firms in free societies with their counterparts in China. Such grassroots people-to-people engagement is not only less risky than overt military confrontation, but draws on the history of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in the late 1970s, which led to China’s economic growth. These were not top-down measures, but rather the result of the Chinese Communist Party recognising, approving and legalising changes already happening at a local level – such as farmers and enterprises seeking more responsibility for production and profits.

Since then the CCP has successfully ridden and directed the tiger of bottom-up spontaneous economic and social change, not least by identifying its own interests with those of the wider population. This is a source of great strength but also of vulnerability. A policy of encouraging organised contact at a civil society level has the possibility of working with internal developments and helping them to take on forms and directions that the current rulers will find much less easy to manage.

It was hoped for many years that markets plus prosperity would lead by a natural process to more liberty and even democracy in China, perhaps along the lines of South Korea’s transformation from a military dictatorship to a democracy in the 1980s. If anything, though, authoritarianism in China has been on the rise. The world will be a poorer and perhaps more volatile place when this crisis has passed. The last thing it needs is an economically costly and politically dangerous confrontation between the West and China.

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Professor Syed Kamall is Academic and Research Director at the IEA and Professor of International Relations and Politics at St Mary's University, Twickenham.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.