Sunday, April 21, 2024

PULPIT: The art of avoiding war

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Few governments undertake foreign relations from long-term strategies. They tend to react according to their immediate interests and couch their reactions in diplomatic language that suggests strategy but often lacks substance. The United States is trying to corral its allies and dependents into a bloc to contain China, while making references to upholding international law and human rights. These same laws and rights it ignores in the name of national security, such as with its ill-fated forays into the Middle East and handling of detainees suspected of terrorism nearer to home.
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The US government appears motivated by a fear of China’s rise, which it mistakenly sees as responsible for the receding tide of its global power. China also provides the US population with an external enemy to hold responsible for internal American problems. 

In this, President Biden differs only in tone from his predecessor, while nurturing the seeds of a future conflict that the previous administration planted. In the recent G7 meeting in England, Biden tacitly made US support for NATO conditional upon a European alliance with the US against China.

European countries will join in the containment rhetoric to a degree, but a real alliance is unlikely, for working with China offers Europe long-term economic benefits the US cannot match.

The Chinese government also lacks a coherent foreign relations strategy, but has two general aims: to be recognised as a pivotal power in the world (a revived Middle Kingdom), and to exert influence within the region and on its trade routes commensurate with its economic and geographical scale.

The former is problematic, for by harking back to the pre-Opium War dynastic past, it risks making China’s aims seem imperial, when the core motive is to recover lost prestige.

The latter is more practical and should not be interpreted simply as expansionist, for China perceives that its large landmass and population require a commensurately large zone of maritime influence.

China has demonstrated a capacity for comprehensive domestic strategies spanning decades, such as reforms in banking, the creation of a largely free-enterprise-driven market system, the expansion of common wealth and the beginnings of environmental renewal.

China’s mistake in the past five years has been to confuse forcefulness of tone for demonstrations of internal strength. Some government spokespersons sound as if they are reacting from anger over historical injury and current insecurity rather than representing a powerful, stable, largely modern country with a vision for the future.

Winning the world back

Chinese people invariably praise their government’s handling of covid and ongoing economic reform, but many criticise the degree to which their government has alienated so many of its trading partners with its aggressive rhetoric.

President Xi’s speech in June to the Politburo Study Session called on officials to adopt a softer tone in foreign affairs. Perhaps this denotes an awareness of general discomfort in the administration and the wider population of China’s increasing alienation. The proof would be in a quieting of the wolves in China’s foreign service.

The Western world is turning against China at an alarming rate and no matter how justified China’s conviction may be that it is being unfairly punished for its economic success and growing national confidence, Beijing is far from powerless to reverse this trend. 

Recent polls in the US, Australia and other Western countries show that more people have a largely negative view of China than a positive view. While there is no current national data on the Chinese people’s views of other countries, anecdotally it appears that they have a growing sense of regret and resentment that attitudes towards their country have changed, more so than direct rejection of the cultures that judge them.

Just as Mao unified his country one guerrilla engagement at a time, China needs to secure the trust and respect of large and smaller nations one by one.

A few carefully timed larger initiatives, such as Xi Jinping sitting down with President Modi to address the tensions on the Chinese-Indian border, would offer China and its counterparts opportunities to demonstrate their power and maturity. These sorts of pairings would show that the US and Europe are participants but no longer the arbiters of global relationships. Sadly, such rapprochements are unlikely.

While full war is not imminent, conflicts become more likely the longer sides hold their stances in seeing the other side as the enemy.

In the case of China, with a strong economy and relatively high social morale, the sooner Beijing can pursue rapprochement with important counterparts the better, before it is distracted by multiple pressing domestic and foreign policy challenges at once.

Who am I? David Mahon is the managing director Mahon Investments in Beijing, China.

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