“I think both sides [China and the United States] should work hard to build a new kind of relationship between big powers. The two sides should co-operate with each other for a win-win result in order to benefit people from the two countries and around the world”.
President Xi Jingping
The view from on high
Leangkollen, Norway. 7 February. Is Europe rising to the China challenge? No. Is the first truly global cold war underway? Not quite yet. Is an era of cold, contested globalisation underway? Most definitely.
The Leangkollen Conference is a gem of a security conference. Sitting high above the Oslo Fjord the gathering is perfectly placed to think big about big issues. This year was no exception. My dear friend, Kate Hansen Bundt, and her outstanding young team at the Norwegian Atlantic Committee (DNAK), once again set the bar high for an as ever distinguished group to consider the challenge of China’s burgeoning power. However, what I heard also concerned me. There seemed to be a blind willingness on the part of some to not just accept the fact of Chinese power, but also the nature of it. There was also a dangerous equivalency expressed at times between the US and China in the mind of some of those Europeans present. Whatever one might think of President Trump there is a vast difference between the nature, the values, and above all the hope implicit in American power compared with that of contemporary China.
What this dangerous slide towards equivalency also shows is how far Europeans have moved away from the hard years of strategic reality in which hard choices must be made and, at times, even harder choices. Europeans must take sides in what will be the great strategic contest of this age, and it is very clear which side Europeans must be on. Sadly, too many Europeans leaders and commentators find it hard to accept that China’s rise is actually happening, the scale of the challenge China poses for the liberal world order, or that Beijing is anything but benign. Indeed, a prevailing theme throughout the conference was that China’s power is over-stated, and that China is, at best, a regional power with bits of global outreach. This view strikes me as complacent in the extreme. The scale of China’s global-reach ambitions are reflected in Beijing’s suggestion that it is a ‘near Arctic’ power.
Furthermore, there are many power levers in Beijing’s growing grand strategic tool-kit. Whilst much of the focus is on China’s growing military might and reach, China’s use of debt and diplomatic coercion is far more effective on a daily basis than any supposed military threat. And, Beijing has already demonstrated its willingness and ability to apply such coercion to force compliance and acceptance of its increasingly assertive global foreign and security policy. Take Djibouti. China secured a port with a loan to Djibouti it cannot possibly hope to repay. How long before France and the US who also have facilities therein are asked to leave? Norway has also experience of such coercion. In December 2010, Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was scheduled to receive the Nobel Peace Prize at a ceremony in Oslo. Not only was Xiaobo prevented from attending, Beijing put China-Norwegian relations into the diplomatic deep freeze for six years thereafter.
The ‘West’ is transforming from regional place into global idea and it is the idea of openness that China is contesting, or rather exploiting because Beijing is perfectly willing to use the West’s openness against it. At stake is the very nature of globalisation and the kind of world that will emerge. If the West is to successfully ‘nudge’ China towards a more open society and market, Europeans will need to play their collective part. Are they up to it? The goal of a more open China would be a worthy one, for such a China would still be immensely powerful and compete with the West, most notably the United States. However, the dark side of China, and it can be very dark, epitomises also the dark, cold side of globalisation implicit in much of China’s contemporary challenge to the West.
If China succeeds in exploiting Europe’s need for money to maintain an illusion of prosperity even as its competitiveness declines dramatically, there is a very distinct danger that Europe would in time become a ‘debt colony’ of Beijing and subject to its bidding.
Make no mistake, Europe is on the front-line of this struggle, with the growing debt dependency of Europeans already distorting the cohesion of both the EU and NATO far more than a capricious President Trump. Worse, it is not just Europe’s smaller and poorer states that are vulnerable to the coercion implicit in China’s strategic outreach and assertive statecraft. Britain’s decision last week to permit Huawei to construct ‘non-core’ parts of its future 5G network is both nonsensical and dangerous. Given the nature of 5G technology, and the myriad ‘internet of things’ it will power, there is every danger that service denial would cripple Britain’s critical infrastructure at a critical security juncture, whatever ‘safeguards’ are built-in. China is an authoritarian state driven by the need to control, and at times coerce. Provide such a state with the means to exert control and it will, and at a moment it deems most appropriate to meeting its strategic ends.
The essential point about power is that unless infused with values it is inherently amoral. It is power. If ever this China was to have a twenty-first century unipolar moment then rest assured China’s statecraft would take on all the aspects of a Chinese state willing to go to great lengths to force compliance. Such coercion is already being applied across the civil-military spectrum via debt, to espionage and the implied threat of the use of force. A senior British official told me last week that China has more spies in the UK than any other state.
Europe and China
For all the friction there is some hope that China can be nudged towards the role of responsible global citizen. Unlike the Cold War there is nothing irreconcilable about the US-Chinese relationship. Deals can be done with China, accommodations made. And, Europeans, together with the other democracies that make up the Global West, can act as interested friends to both the Americans and Chinese by helping to mitigate any drift towards ‘irreconcilability’ in the US-China relationship, not least by nudging both back towards multilateralism and the trust it builds. For Europeans to play such a role they will need to collectively convince Beijing that partnership with China does not imply submission to it. For Americans to play their allotted role will require that Washington re-learn the arts of complex coalition leadership.
Is Europe rising to the China challenge? Not yet, but collectively Europeans will need to. Is the first truly global cold war underway? No, but cold, contested, dark globalisation is a new form of a new ‘arms race’ in China’s quest for global dominance. Like it or not, Europeans will need to take part in that race, if for no other reason than it is China that is increasingly making the rules, including the future shape of conflict.
‘Respect’ should be the mantra Europeans should adopt in dealing with China. Respect for China, respect for its power and, of course, respect for its people and potential. Equally, Europeans must also ‘respect’ the nature of the Chinese state, the dark sides of its growing influence and power, and the threat it could pose, and develop the resilience needed to resist Chinese coercion, both implied and actual, overt and covert.
Cold globalisation and the bipolar US-China contest for global power is a fact. The outcome will decide not only the nature of the twenty-first century, but which values and ideas will dominate. In that sense there IS an ideological edge to the challenge China poses to the West, even if it is nothing like the contest that suffused the Cold War. For Europeans, the China challenge will also decide if they have the collective will and power to be strategic partners and, at times, critical friends of China, or simply yet more strategic prey.
In other words, no more China wishful thinking, Europe. Realism, respect and resiliency.