Stability, not hostility
In December 1951, the Central Intelligence Agency wrote a top-secret report to the White House, stating:‘The USSR is now the center of opposition to American policy, and the one power menace to American security.’
Seventy years later, a similar view is being formulated over China, helped by last month’s National Party Congress in Beijing which gave Xi Jinping an unprecedented third term.
The decision by the Chinese Communist Party to endorse Xi’s harsher, less collegiate policies – whether attacking India, militarising the South China Sea or repression in Xinjiang – raises rivalry with Western democracies to a higher, more dangerous level.
The near future will pose a critical challenge as moderate, balancing voices risk being drowned outby hawks on all sides straining for increased enmity.
The 1951 CIA memo went on to argue, ‘The need for knowledge of the USSR, the orbit of its domination, and its worldwide communist organization transcends all other intelligence requirements.’
From then on, up to 75 per cent of all intelligence resources were targeted on the Soviet Union and its allies.
It is importantthat, this time around, US foreign policy avoids becoming consumed by the ‘China threat’ or, given Russia’s parallel and violent attempts at expansion, with the all-encompassing spectre of the ‘authoritarian threat’.
The concentrated focus on the Soviet Union came with dreadful wars in Asia, Africa and Latin America. A similar focus, after 2001, on Islamic extremism inflamed the Middle East and North Africa.
Yet the intelligence community failed to predict pivotal Cold War and War on Terror events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall or the collapse of Afghanistan. In short, they may never have understood the real nature of their enemy.
They need to do so with Xi Jinping’s new China which, from two perspectives, must be handled in a very different way.
First, the Global South has become an increasingly influential constituency. Many there welcome China’s expansion, believing that, in poor societies, authoritarian good governance can propel development faster than competitive open democracy.
Second, promoting anti-China or anti-authoritarian policies opens up scrutiny and criticism of the currently fractured nature of Western democracy.
As Xi Jinping carefully choreographed his consolidation of power, his former American counterpart was called to testify on allegations that he tried to topple the elected government. Meanwhile, Britain’s government was in turmoil, with the survival of its prime minister compared to the shelf-life of a lettuce.
It is crucial, therefore, that the West concentrates on winning the argument on its own system and values without falling into either a hot or cold conflict with China.
As of now, American foreign policy has been reactive, as if a rising alternate superpower has to be a hostile threat. Instead of highlighting all that is bad about China, the West needs to state clearly where it is heading and what it has to offer.
The problem here lies in the current polarisation within democratic politics. Any advocacy to move towards a less antagonistic relationship with a China which has crushed Hong Kong, runs concentration camps in Xinjiang and so on, would be seen as a weakness and a vote loser.
A solution lies in grounding the electorate in some basic truths.
China remains a developing nation that is nowhere near competing at any serious level. Its military is untested. Its economy is in trouble and remains reliant on the West
Those of us buying Asian-branded cars, computers and gadgets head for Japanese, South Korean and Taiwanese products which compete as equals among those from Western democracies.
Much of China’s technological advances have come from stealing material, poaching talent and working with Western companies. It is at least a generation away from being equal and self-contained.
A clear example of China’s weakness is its damaging zero-Covid policy. Unlike the West, where life is pretty much back to normal, China has failed to produce an effective vaccine. Life can be disrupted at any moment by mandatory lockdowns. Foreign investors are fleeing, their companies moving out.
We now know that, over the near future, China will edge further towards an ideologically cultish dictatorship whose leader favours loyalty over merit and wants to rule without scrutiny of peers.
History shows that, in the long term, this will not work. Russia is a clear and present example.
But, rather than create an all-absorbing enemy as it did with the Soviet-Union, the US must discover how to ease China back from the brink. Demonising Xi for a domestic American audience will not do the business.
The more he is threatened, the more Xi will batten down and the more fragile China will become. The sudden collapse of his government, Soviet Union-style, would be a global catastrophe.