29 April 2020

We know China is guilty, so what should the West do now?

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“The Chinese government wants me to say that for many centuries Tibet has been part of China. Even if I make that statement, many people would just laugh. And my statement will not change past history. History is history.” –The Dalai Lama

From the Dalai Lama to my grandmother

The Dalai Lama is right. At root, to paraphrase Aristotle, things are what they are. They cannot be wished away, excused away, or censored away. History is history.

Of course, that does not stop many people from trying to do so. For example, the often wrong Chris Patten has intoned that now is precisely the wrong time to take the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to task for its criminally negligent behaviour over the spread of the coronavirus. Instead, he suggests, “In the midst of a fire, it makes no sense to point fingers at the principal arsonist”. Frankly, this defeatist nonsense makes no sense, either as a metaphor (I’d surely hope to promptly catch the person who burned my house down) or as a guide to international relations.

Instead, I suggest we follow the far sager advice of my grandmother that “we are going to have to walk and chew gum at the same time”. In this case, we must deal with the horrendous health and economic policy issues surrounding the coronavirus, all the while never forgetting that it is the CCP who, once it had struck them down, aided and abetted its global spread, in an effort to safeguard its global position. Both thoughts must animate us, and at the same time.

What to do about China

The last CapX piece I wrote, setting out China’s direct complicity in the spread of the coronavirus, is the most read article I have ever written, after 800-plus other pieces and 20 years in the business. The overwhelming follow-up question of the many of you who wrote to me directly was simple, to the point, and quite right. “You have convinced us China is largely to blame for the virus’s spread. What should the rest of us do about it?”.

The key lies in the CCP’s motive for obscuring the true extent of the virus; it is animated by a firm belief that it is fighing a Cold War with the US and its allies, whether we agree or not. In turn, we now must accept that we are in a Cold War with the CCP, as they certainly believe themselves. So, what are we in the West to do?

First, the initial contest will play out in the field of public diplomacy. Here the CCP – using its comparative advantage of getting through the virus first – is pursuing its geostrategic interests via ‘mask diplomacy,’ trying to change the basic narrative by offering hard-hit countries medical supplies, both as a showy humanitarian gesture and as a sign of their system’s supposed superiority.

Beyond the point that much of these supplies must be paid for and some are defective, the whole exercise is an effort in changing the subject away from the inconvenient facts about the genesis of the virus.

Their bullying tactics abound, whether it is in economically threatening the Australian government, which wants to launch a global commission looking into the causes and early response to the virus, or in warning the EU not to issue a report (bless them, they did anyway) alleging Beijing’s role in spreading disinformation about the virus’s outbreak.

In the face of this infuriating (but surprisingly effective) Chinese public diplomacy push, we in the West must continue to shout from the rooftops that it is the CCP itself that allowed the virus to spread to the rest of us. We must not allow Beijing to escape blame for immiserating our world.

Second, economically, over time there must be a diversification of supply chains away from a country that is our primary competitor. While this might mean we cannot buy manufactured goods quite as cheaply anymore, it is a price well worth paying not to leave ourselves, for example, at the tender mercies of Beijing in terms of its overwhelming production of the medicines we use.

Further integrating our core economic functions with China is no longer a question of balancing commercial and political concerns, it is a choice between good sense and geostrategic suicide. This brings me nicely to the British government’s breathtakingly dense decision to allow Huawei – a state-sponsored Chinese company whose founders have close military and security ties to the CCP – to have a significant stake in the construction of the UK’s crucial 5G networks.

Frankly, I do not care either if it takes longer to roll 5G out in the UK, or if the Swedish or Finnish alternatives cost more money, and neither should the citizens of this country. Just as Mrs Thatcher would never have let the KGB run the UK’s phone networks in the 1980s, nor should Boris Johnson allow Huawei anywhere near Britain’s 5G network now. This staggeringly ill-advised decision must be overturned immediately.

Finally, what the CCP has done – akin to manslaughter if it were a held responsible as a person – must be made the central organising fact in the rejuvenation of our alliance system. Much more explicit anti-CCP defence strategies must be established, linking a global League of Democracies that comprises the Quad-plus in Asia (US, Australia, Japan, India, plus Taiwan), NATO, and the Anglosphere core (US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand).

This League of Democracies, designed explicitly to contain the CCP’s increasingly expansionist foreign policy, exhibited in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to dominate Eurasia, as well as Beijing’s aggressive moves in the South China and East China Seas, must serve as the strategic long-term counter-weight to what the Chinese have done.

The Chinese have made it crystal clear that a Cold War for dominance of our new world is the defining characteristic of our age. It is now up to us to either respond to the CCP’s obviously malign intentions, or meekly and decadently acquiesce in living a world where they can blithely get away with infecting the rest of us. History is history; the only question that remains is what we do with this knowledge.

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Dr. John C. Hulsman is the president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consulting firm. He is also senior columnist for City AM.

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