In recent weeks, when we might have expected amicable collaboration between world powers on tackling COVID-19, the United States and China have done the opposite.
President Donald Trump threatened to cut off America’s ‘whole relationship’ with Beijing, whom he blames unequivocally for the outbreak, saying China could have stopped the virus at source.
For its part, China has been flexing its muscles at long-standing flashpoints of tension. These include the disputed border with India, the South China Sea with its Southeast Asian neighbours, and with Japan in the East China Sea. It has also been stepping up its rhetoric against Taiwan.
In Xinjiang, rather than scaling down its internment camps targeting the Muslim community, Beijing is adopting a policy of forcible resettlement for Uighurs to other parts of China. Simultaneously, it has imposed new security laws on Hong Kong, undermining freedoms in the former British territory which should be guaranteed by international treaty until 2047.
In the wake of this, panellists at a recent seminar hosted by Asian Affairs-linked think-tank The Democracy Forum debated what they expected to unfold between China and the West in the near future.
Some of their conclusions are very much out of step with those often portrayed through the eyes of the Western media, indicating that the US and Europe may need to undergo a fundamental shift of mindset.
The first myth to be debunked was that, with China’s rise, we are moving towards a new Cold War. Unlike with the Soviet Union, Western democracies are inextricably entwined with China, making a nonsense of Trump’s threat to close off the relationship. Anyone casting an eye around their household will see how stripped it might become should all products linked to a Chinese supply chain suddenly be removed.
Millions of Chinese have studied in Western democracies. Many now run big companies, are in government and think-tanks there. There is nothing cold about the relationship and there is little prospect of mutually assured nuclear destruction, which was the familiar dystopian war scenario with the Soviet Union.
Another jolt of reality came from the status of President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party, whose skilled propaganda machinery ensured that COVID-19 has led to an increased trust in government. The likelihood of Xi being ousted in an internal power struggle is next to zero. Nor will the government need to soften under pressure from an expanding educated and wealthy middle class. They are largely happy.
In short, assessments once argued that China was a developing nation that would evolve over time into a multi-party democracy were wrong.
Two of the most inflammatory issues in Western eyes are Xinjiang and Hong Kong, which spotlight the gap between China and the West’s view of human rights. Xinjiang has a million or more civilians in prison camps based on their ethnicity. Hong Kong is a flourishing society being dragged, with protests and barricades, toward authoritarianism.
Both have inflamed passions in the faraway West, but little elsewhere.
The Islamic world has taken no action over the incarceration of fellow Muslims. China’s close relationship with countries such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, with their vocal Islamic advocacy, remains strong and unaffected.
Asia’s voice, too, has remained largely silent over China’s move into Hong Kong. Initial support for protests fell away long ago when property was damaged and the airport closed, indicating that Asia’s priorities lie in creating wealth through trade rather than promoting individual rights.
All of these points emphasise the glaring difference between Western values currently propelling the rules-based world order, and Asian values, which have yet to forge their own international mechanisms.
Rather than move towards deadlock on a myriad of issues, one way forward would be to establish a dual-track world order reflecting the different values of the Chinese and Western systems.
This was panellist Kerry Brown’s suggestion, which he described as a pragmatic acceptance of the existence of two huge entities which did not get on.
In many ways, it is already happening. There is cooperation in areas such as climate change and scientific research, and a reluctant acceptance of Beijing’s South China Sea bases which, under international law, are illegal.
The unanswered question, however, is what if there is bloodshed on a massive scale in Xinjiang or Hong Kong?
Could Western powers watch and do nothing on the grounds that this is now a pragmatic dual-track world, and accept that this was China’s way of getting things done?
Governments have no answers to this question, underlining how much the US, Britain and the rest of Europe are neglecting the need to forge detailed policies toward China. This is now a matter of urgency.