The Chinese Dream

China’s Challenge to Global Britain

24th November 2021

 

David Martin Jones and M.L.R. Smith argue the UK is not taking seriously the threat China poses to national security, stability and prosperity.

The Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the Party’s highest decision-making body, met for the sixth plenum of its current cycle earlier this month. Although little remarked upon in the West, the plenum passed an historic resolution, only the third such in its hundred year history. The resolution attributes China’s resurgence, power, and wealth to actions taken by Xi Jinping and the CCP. The resolution paves the way for the next party congress in 2022 to confirm Xi Jinping as the Party’s General Secretary and leader of the country ‘forever’. The Central Committee’s decision represents a significant concentration of power in the leader of this one party state.  

The UK government and the mainstream media’s failure to recognize the implications of this latest stage in China’s development as a totalitarian despotism is disquieting. The CCP, and its dictatorial leader, represent a serious threat to a United Kingdom struggling to recover from the social and economic devastation wrought by Covid-19 and successive lockdowns. Unlike other threats to national security that emerge from outside or within the UK, China directly challenges both the UK’s internal security and its interest in securing a rule-governed, international post-pandemic order. The UK thus needs a far more coherent defence and foreign policy posture to address the threat from China.

Foreign policy

In foreign policy terms, the challenge China poses to the UK starts in Taiwan and moves South. The UK’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific and the negotiation of AUKUS is a promissory note that has to take account of the potential for conflict both in the South China Sea and over the status of Taiwan. Since 1949, China has considered Taiwan to be a rebellious province. It is increasingly considered ripe for forcible reunification with the mainland.

The UK has traditionally been an open society and, prior to its baleful period of EU membership, committed to free trade with the world. However, a revitalized UK foreign policy must now confront what the Chinese Communist Party intends, by the centenary of its foundation in 2049, to be a world system that functions on its terms. This is a world order that will not be moving towards liberalism. As Xi Jinping made clear in his speech to the twelfth Party Congress in 2013: ‘To accomplish the Chinese Dream we have to take a Chinese path. This is the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics. This is not a path that opens up by itself.’ (1)

In order to retard the Chinese Dream, the UK will need to balance its growing commercial interests in the Indo-Pacific with deterring Chinese adventurism. It is in its post Brexit shift to the Indo-Pacific where the vital importance of the UK’s special relationship with the US will need careful calibration to ensure neither increased dependency on an unreliable US President, nor kowtowing to China. 

In this context, the UK needs to attend carefully to what other like-minded democracies are saying and doing. Significantly, Australia declared that the prospect of high intensity conflict is now less remote than it was, in its most recent strategic defence review, but also noted that more ‘grey zone’ incidents are already occurring. The Japanese also recognize the growing threat from China. For the first time, Japan has removed Taiwan from its map of China and has dedicated separate chapters of its latest defence review to Taiwan and the communist-ruled mainland. The review notes the growing CCP threat to the island and states that, ‘it is necessary that we pay close attention to the situation … more than ever before.’

The tone and relative precision of Britain’s allies in the Asia-Pacific stands in marked contrast to the contradictory and languid prose of the UK’s most recent Integrated Review which vaguely proposes to ‘do more to adapt to China’s growing impact on our lives’. Tellingly, the Australian, Japanese and US responses to China’s regional adventurism offer a more pragmatic guide and a better insight into dealing with China’s global ambitions. We should therefore recognize, as Australia, Japan and the US already do, that the unveiling of Communist China’s hostility to the free World has been a key geo-political development in the post-Covid world. 

Illiberal sinocentrism

China deploys its soft and hard power to advance an allegedly harmonious, but notably hierarchical, illiberal, sinocentric alternative to a rule-governed world order. The CCP’s United Front for Cultural Work has a well-established track record for producing internal and external propaganda to advance this hegemonic agenda. As Miles Yu of the Hoover Institution has argued, the United Front has sought and always found willing accomplices among western elites notably in academe, business and politics. The United Front now assumes physical shape in the form of Confucius Institutes proliferating across European, Australian and North American campuses. Their purpose is to raise awareness of China whilst at the same time dismissing or censoring any inconvenient truths about human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Tibet or Hong Kong. (2)

The Party’s soft power, elite capture, and growing social media presence has in recent decades enabled China to undermine the conventional practices of political democracy and advance the understanding of China as ‘a justly aggrieved nation’ led by enlightened leaders toward a world historic comeback after a century of ‘western humiliation’. China understands and plays the West all too well. By contrast, the Integrated Review intimates that the British government barely understands Xi Jinping’s ‘China Dream’ at all. 

One of the policy imperatives for Britain is to undo the CCP’s United Front work that has succeeded in capturing elite interests and opinion, not least inside its universities. Confucius Institutes require urgent regulation, if not rolling back, as too does the CCP’s acquisition of UK infrastructure and high tech companies. In the short time since its publication, the Integrated Review’s failure to follow through on the Prime Minister’s geo-strategically pivotal decision to exclude Huawei is one of its major defects. Critical national infrastructure and technology need to be secured to allow Britain to trade intelligently with China. This notwithstanding, the new National Security and Investment Act (2021) designed to interdict China’s technology and infrastructural acquisitions proved powerless to stop China’s state linked WingTech electronics company snapping up Newport based Wafer Fab, the UK’s leading semi-conductor plant for a knockdown price of £65 million in July.

However, Xi Jinping’s belligerence, like a number of sons of heaven before him, might be a sign of an acute case of imperial overreach. Despite buying global influence through its Belt and Road Initiative and its leadership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation of fellow despotisms, China is ‘a lonely power’. Xi Jinping’s aggressive foreign policy posture that, Mao apart, contrasts starkly with all his predecessors, has increased international opposition, undoing years of effort by Chinese officials to assure regional governments that a stronger China will be a peaceful and accommodating good neighbour rather than a domineering one. 

China’s self-defeating approach

Xi’s foreign policy has been self-defeating in a number of important respects. Xi’s conversion of the CCP’s diplomatic corps into ‘wolf warriors’ who ‘dare to show the sword’ (gǎn chū jiàn) has witnessed Chinese diplomats insulting and threatening not just Western democracies, but inter alia, Brazil, Kazakhstan, Venezuela, Thailand, and South Korea. The result is not surprising. Public opinion surveys in Australia, South America and the US show a marked decrease in positive feelings towards China over the last two years. Former Singaporean senior foreign ministry official Bilahari Kausikan thinks that ‘China’s ‘Wolf Warriors’ are doing a better job than any American diplomat in arousing anti-Chinese feelings around the world.’  

Equally damaging to China’s international status was the June 2020 skirmish in the Galwan Valley. The clash, along the disputed Sino-Indian border, began when Chinese troops ambushed and killed an Indian colonel. This incident pushed India into closer alignment with its Quad partners (Japan, India, US and Australia). The Indian government cancelled infrastructure construction deals, halted the purchase of Huawei information technology equipment, and sought to decouple China economically from other important sectors. Apart from a deepening commitment to the Quad, India was quick to express support for the AUKUS agreement and now sends warships into the South China Sea – acts that Beijing finds threatening. 

It is in the South China Sea, where Beijing began building sizable artificial islands in 2013, that Xi’s policy has spectacularly backfired. China has installed military facilities, including runways, docks, barracks, and missile batteries, on at least three reefs in the Spratly group. Beijing’s South China Sea policy attempts to impose its will upon weaker neighbours rather than negotiating a mutually acceptable compromise through the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) code of conduct for regional maritime disputes, that China signed up to in 2012. It also demonstrates the Chinese government’s willingness to disregard international agreements like the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas to which China is a signatory. Ironically, the strategic utility of these islands, located far from mainland China, is uncertain. They might prove more of a liability than an asset in a time of conflict. More than any other single policy, the new bases convinced international observers that the PRC under Xi had taken a distinctly confrontational turn that emphasises winning rather than managing strategic disputes.

Meanwhile, in the geopolitically fraught case of Taiwan, Xi has essentially doubled-down on his predecessors’ demonstrably failed policies. Xi maintains that unification is essential to China’s rejuvenation, although the PRC is both prosperous and secure without controlling Taiwan. He has continued to insist that Taiwan’s destiny is ‘one country, two systems’ (1C2S). However, since its democratic opening in 2000, Taiwan has never supported 1C2S, and the destruction of Hong Kong’s liberties has completely discredited the concept. That Xi would still speak of 1C2S in a message to Taiwan as recently as October 2021 indicates a wilful intellectual and political blindness.

 Xi’s increased military pressure on Taiwan has only deepened resentment towards China and bolstered support for the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party. The heightened sense of danger has also persuaded Taiwan to implement an asymmetric defense strategy, which will make it more capable of resisting any attempted PRC invasion. The Biden administration has reaffirmed US support for Taiwan as ‘rock solid.’ Australian Defence Minister, Peter Dutton announced in November that Australia would support Taiwan in the event of an attack, and Japanese leaders are now openly discussing the increasing likelihood that Japan would help defend Taiwan. Xi’s tone-deaf policy towards Taiwan eliminates all possible solutions other than war. Even in the best-case scenario, war would be disastrous for China. 

Elsewhere, China’s recent strategy of economic coercion against Australia has similarly failed. In April 2020, Canberra displeased Beijing by calling for an inquiry into the origins of the pandemic. The PRC retaliated by cutting the imports of ten Australian products. Canberra refused to accommodate the political demands made by the Chinese embassy in November 2020 and the consequences of the sanctions were worse for China than for Australia. Australia suffered little from the import ban, finding other buyers for most of the resources China turned away. Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg described the damage done to Australia’s economy as ‘relatively modest.’ In addition to the reputational cost to Beijing, the Chinese government’s campaign against Australia drew greater international attention to the dangers of doing business with the PRC. Power outages in China during autumn 2021 are partly due to coal shortages, worsened by the sanctions against Australian coal imports. 

The unilateral attempt to punish Australia has further increased international momentum to address China’s systematic violation of both the spirit and the letter of its World Trade Organization obligations. Canberra’s refusal to capitulate may serve as an inspiration for other governments facing Chinese economic pressure over a political disagreement, and diminish the utility of this tactic. It also ought to serve as a model for the UK in its evolving ties with both Australia and with China. Despite the sixth plenum’s resolution, the Xi Jinping leadership group is far from achieving the ‘great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’. Xi’s personality cult combined with the concentration of decision-making powers in himself and prioritizing loyalty over pragmatic analysis is not conducive to advisors warning him against his more egregious mistakes. The Mandate of Heaven could well pass from him. 

A PRC that other states perceive as aggressive and capricious has engendered, as if by an invisible hand, an increasingly coordinated regional resistance. This will make it harder for China to become a regional or a global leader. If other governments believe China is expansionist, they will believe every strategic gain by China emboldens Beijing to strive for more. In other words, China can best be checked by a containment and deterrence strategy. In this, the UK can play a major role if the FCDO can be persuaded to get its somewhat lacklustre act together. Evidently, the UK can best help resist continuing Chinese expansionism through building robust alliances. In this context, the UK must reassess its free world commitments and build alliances with those where trust is most complete, namely within the Anglosphere, the Commonwealth and with the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence nations (US,UK Australia, Canada and New Zealand) at its core. AUKUS (the recent defence agreement to provide nuclear submarines to the Australian navy) therefore represents a welcome recognition of the need to engage more fully with key Anglospheric allies. 

In sum, there are a number of signs that British foreign policy is moving towards a greater appreciation for the need to engage with allies and partner countries in the Indo-Pacific region to balance the China threat. At the same time, this realisation needs to be accompanied by a firmer resolve by Britain’s policy establishment to confront the spread of CCP influence at home: in business, the technology sector, and in higher education. The key lesson to observe is that when it comes to China, foreign policy is not something that exists merely as a discrete, external enterprise, but is intimately connected with domestic concerns as much as international ones.

  1. See the translation by Marius Meinhof, Junchen Yan, Lily Zhu, ‘Postcolonialism and China’ InterDisciplines 1 2017 p.1.
  2. Miles Yu Beijing’s Woke Propaganda War Strategika 72  Hoover Institution May 2021

David Martin Jones is Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. M.L.R. Smith is Professor of Strategic Theory at King’s College London. Their latest book is Terror in the Western Mind: Cultural Responses to 9/11, published by Academica Press.

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Image from Wiki Commons.