EVENT TRANSCRIPT: Westlessness and China After the G7
DATE: 3pm 19 June
SPEAKERS: Gray Sergeant, Tim Ruhlig, Mark Webber, Cindy Yu, Rhyannon Bartlett, Gideon Rachman
EVENT MODERATOR: Gray Sergeant
Gray Sergeant 00:00
Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome to the Henry Jackson Society. My name is Gray Sergeant. I’m a research fellow here at the Asia Studies Center. And today we’re hosting our event, Westlessness – China after the g7. Most of the time, you’d say, welcome to this very timely debate. But we’re about one month, one month off from the g7 meeting in Cornwall. But I think that gives a little bit of time to actually reflect on what happened and, and gather some more considered thoughts and go beyond the initial headlines. I think from the g7, we saw a bit of a consensus initially emerged that this was a great triumph for Western or g7 unity. In the face of what many see as an increasingly assertive Chinese Communist Party on the world stage. We had a joint statement, which unlike previous statements by leaders include a fair amount on China covering the traditional human rights issues such as shinjang. And Hong Kong, would also talk about maintaining peace and stability in the Indo Pacific, with specific mentioned to the Taiwan straits, which I think many conversations saw as a real step forward in an in in g7, and Western interest in China’s rise. And as such, it was portrayed as a victory for Biden’s more multilateral approach to foreign policy in general, but specifically China policy and was seen as a vindication of his approach versus Trump’s more America first, unilateralist and more aggressive approach. But we know that there are cracks in the western Alliance, particularly China before the g7 and afterwards. And we know particularly Europe, European countries, such as France and Germany tend to be that little bit more cautious when it comes to actively challenge them. Beijing. This isn’t particularly new, I recently picked the term restlessness. It comes from the Munich Security Conference only last year, which talks about the West being divided, lacking in confidence for its values and an ultimately exhausted. And while the g7 has initially kind of put those fears to bed, amongst some commentators, I still think there’s a debate to be had, which about the extent to which the g7 and the broader West is actually committed to taking on China in the same way that the Biden administration hopes to, we can be united behind values, perhaps and Biden might be a strong advocate for free world, but what about when it comes to action on issues like vaccines, or challenging China and infrastructure. I seem to remember, a fair amount of noise about the Biden’s Build Back Better World alternative to the Belt and Road initiative. But I haven’t heard much since the g7, which suggests perhaps, this hasn’t quite got the momentum behind it that some in Washington might want. So to discuss all of the all these topics, I’m delighted to be joined by some fantastic speakers. And we have Gideon Rachman, who’s the chief foreign affairs commentator for the Financial Times. And in 2016, he published “Easternization: War and Peace in the Asian Century,” which I’d highly recommend. We have Tim Ruhlig, who is a research fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs in Stockholm, and he specializes on European-China relations. And we have Cindy Yu from the spectator and who writes on China regularly and also hosts the Chinese Whispers podcast, which also highly recommend people interested in China and Asia tune into. I’ll ask all three of our speakers to speak for about 10 minutes or so to offer their thoughts on the on the subject. And then we’ll go to a q&a, which you can participate in by clicking on the q&a box and typing in your question. And then once you’ve collected a few, we’ll we’ll ask you to come forward and address the speakers. So without further ado, I’d like to ask Gideon, if you could kick off our discussion for us.
Gideon Rachman 04:32
Okay, thanks Gray. Good to join you. And, as you say, kind of the key topic really about our era and I think it’s quite interesting. Just I think you’d like me to focus particularly on the American side, and then others will chip in on Europe and so on. I mean, I think it’s it’s interesting because it wasn’t inevitable that Biden has made China in particular the focus of his foreign policy. And he has said that this really is a sort of generational conflict or struggle that will define the 21st century that this is casted as a struggle between a value as a struggle between freedom and democracy, and authoritarianism. And so that’s very strong stuff. And he, in that, in some senses, there’s clearly a continuity with both Trump and indeed, with Obama. You know, it’s under Obama that you first had this talk of a pivot to Asian, the person who coined that phrase was Kurt Campbell, who’s now in charge of the policy in the Biden White House. But Campbell, and the Obama team kept finding themselves pulled back into the Middle East. So it was the sort of thought was there, but it was very hard to carry through in practice. Under Trump, you have a much more aggressive, you know, trumpian style rhetoric towards China, but also the initiation of this trade war, which I think came as a big shock to the Chinese. And was the first and very significant break with the idea that globalization was a joint project that could jointly benefit the United States and China, even as Obama had pushed back against China, he hadn’t really broken with the idea that there was a mutual economic benefits to be had in trade. Trump very much does that. Biden’s now put his own stamp on it, because his focus is much less narrowly economic. There was always this sense, really, until a pandemic came along, and then gave Trump an added reason to be anti China, in the middle of an election campaign where he wants to talk about the China virus. But Trump saw his endgame as actually just getting a better trade deal with China that he was treating them like as a rival real estate developer in which you sort of bang the table walk out, you’re very insulting and horrible. And then eventually you come and sign a deal, and you get a better deal. He didn’t he never really talked about in ideological terms. Now the people just behind him making the policy, I think very much did see it in ideological terms. I mean, Pompeo did, Mike Pence gave, you know, speeches that were seen as kind of new Cold War speeches, and the real sort of brains behind the policy, Matt Pottinger, I think very much saw this as freedom versus authoritarianism. But Trump himself didn’t and Trump mattered. Now, I think with Biden’s arrival, there have been two changes. First, the the leader himself, the President is talking about this an explicit the ideological terms. And that obviously makes it much harder to solve. And in that sense, he’s a harder challenge for the Chinese and the Chinese sort of dealt with Trump like this sort of crazy guy that they always thought which he was, that maybe he could be bought off. And that, therefore this conflict wouldn’t necessarily be baked into relations. If you cast it as an ideological conflict and a territorial conflict about who’s the dominant power in the Pacific, there was elements of that in the Trump approach, then it’s really not going to be a conflict that solves the best that can be happen for both sides, I guess is that it can be managed as they sort of wait for history to favor one side or the other almost a bit like the Cold War. I mean, I sometimes think that one of the reasons we didn’t end up with a hot war in the cold war is that both sides were sort of wedded to an inevitablist philosophy, even though the Soviets thought the West would eventually collapse in the West, or the Soviets would eventually collapse. And fortunately, we were right. And I think, you know, neither side, one hopes, wants to push it all the way to conflict. But some of the Chinese rhetoric around Taiwan is pretty conflictual. And you have now got explicit talk in the United States about the growing prospect of a war over Taiwan, and indeed, concerns about whether America could win such a war, if would even fight it if it took place. So there’s the ideological element. I think the other the other big shift that you’ve seen with Biden, is his emphasis on allies in Trump, you know, characteristically often seem to see Germany as as much of a problem was China because he thought primarily in trade terms, and this was just another country with a large trade deficit. Biden has explicitly sought to rally allies realizing that America as in the Cold War, but maybe even more than in the Cold War cannot do this alone. Because, you know, I was just at the online reception for the Chinese ambassador, the new one in London. And, you know, he listed facts China’s the world’s largest manufacturing power, the world’s largest exporter, now the world’s largest recipient of foreign direct investment, although that may be a product of the pandemic, but it’s a huge economic player and growing. And we’re increasingly indebted and introspective. So America does need buy in from its allies. And it needs help. Which brings us I guess, the topic of the seminar. I mean, I think that Biden has some things going for him when he seeks to rally allies and some some problems, the things that are going for them is China, inadvertently perhaps, has become increasingly scary. So that the whole wolf warrior diplomacy staff has been massively counterproductive, may may work with that sort of Chinese domestic audience. But if you’ve seen Xi’s, perceptions of Xi plummets around the world and sort of international opinion polls. And I think that, you know, the Europeans have taken to calling China a systemic rival, they tried to push through this investment deal. I’m not talking about Tim’s stuff. So I’ll get off that but basically, he’s helped by the fact Biden, that the Europeans are now seeing China in more negative terms. He’s harmed by the fact, however, that they also seeing America and more negative terms as a much more troubled society and a less reliable ally. So a lot of Europeans and Asians I think, would love to believe that Biden is right when he says America is back. But he says it’s so often that kind of stuff. He says wants doubt, you know, somebody’s constantly telling you that how strong and virile they are, you kind of begin to, to wonder, and of course, we’re not going to easily wipe away the memory of January the sixth, or the thought that Trump could be president again, in two years time or a Trumpian figure. So I think there are legitimate concerns about America’s reliability as an ally, which will be very, very hard to expunge. Maybe if you get a second Biden term or a more normal Republican, that shock of the Trump era will be wiped out. But I think it’s still we’re still very much living with it. So I think when the Europeans, or some Europeans, specifically Merkel and Germans hesitate to join this, it’s partly because they don’t yet buy into the idea that China is an adversary, they see it as in a more complex way. And they’re worried by that Americans tend to go over the top and they’re like, it’s, you know, the Yes, there’s a problem. But But also, I think that they they don’t really get they’re not convinced that America is in the back or that it staying if it is back. So there’s that. But just to finish, I think that Biden on, it’s not all negative, because as I said, there has been a shift, in your opinion, probably more significant worsening in Europe is what’s happening in Asia. And I think that China made us a massive misstep by killing the Indian soldiers on the Himalayan border. Last summer. There has now been as far as I can tell, albeit because I’m not traveling, it’s a bit from a distance. But there’s been a what feels like a real lasting shift in Indian opinion, which is a disaster strategic disaster for China. You know, this is the alternative superpower, the other only other country in the world with a population remotely the size of China’s, which was has a tradition of non alignment, but isn’t and was quite sniffy about the quad. Because it, but now is really kind of gone on in, as far as I can tell with this new idea of getting together with the Australians, but more significantly, the Japanese and the Americans and organizing something that’s not yet going to be an Asian, NATO, but increasingly feels like a political strategic, concerted push back against China and the Indians even before the killings, were suspicious. I mean, it was striking that the Modi government did not send a representative to the Belt and Road conference in Beijing, for example. So that’s, that’s, I think, a strategically big misstep for the Chinese. And if I was sitting in Beijing, and I’ve explained why the Americans should be worried about doubts about them, and doubts about their military capacity, all of that those are real. But if you’re trying to sort of look at how the world might feel, if you’re looking out from Beijing, I think it must be a little concerning, you know, suddenly an issue that they I think thought they’d get away with Xinjiang, has taken off around the world in a way that they didn’t really anticipate an investment deal that they thought they’d bought in the bag with the Europeans now looks like it’s dead in the water. The countries of Asia, increasingly are aligning more closely with the United States. Not all of them, but it’s hard to think of any really close Chinese allies. There’s Pakistan. There’s North Korea and then they can maybe hope that ASEAN will stay sort of neutral-ish. But if if anything, there’s a slight tilt towards the United States and ASEAN. So China’s left relying on its sheer economic weight. And the sense that the economic relationship with China is so valuable that that an Americans offer orders of declining interest. And that is important, but whether it’s enough to see them through whatever the next diplomatic crisis is in Asia or in Europe, I don’t know. So to conclude, I mean, I think that Biden is right, in that we’re in a very sort of uncertain moment where you can see what the future struggle is. But it’s very, very hard to tell how it’s going to pan out because both sides have things that are going for them and things that are difficult for them. And the situation is evolving quite fast.
Gray Sergeant 15:58
Thank you, Gideon. And yeah, I think that’s certainly certainly true that China relies disproportionately on on its economic might and, or economic power. And there’s certainly something that’s influential for it. And certainly, perhaps one of the key strings to his bow when it comes to European relations, which i’m sure Tim shall talk about.
Tim Ruhlig 16:23
Thank you Gray for organizing this fascinating panel. Gideon, it’s always fascinating to to listen to. So I’ll, it’s always very enlightening. So I’ll do my very best to to follow up after him here. While also the task has given me I think, is, is really quite challenging this, I think we do see quite a reorganization in Europe. We see diversity within countries and obviously, among countries, and then there’s the European Commission that I think also it’s not always consistent in its approach. But in 10 minutes, I need to sort of try to carve out some some general trends I’m seeing and try to sort of explain a few of the frictions, that I think we are seeing, and I hope I can come to some conclusion here. So I think Europe really is in the middle of reorganizing its relations with China. And I do see in general, I think, two major shifts that have sort of taken place in recent years. And they are, in my view, very much tied to what’s happening in the US but not exclusively. The first, I’d say, is what I would call the end of constructive engagement. So for long, I think Europeans may not have always really believed that doing trade, doing economic cooperation with China will fundamentally really lead to a double liberalisation of the economic system and the political system. But at least there were enough Europeans who wanted to believe that because it was altering their short term interest to do business with China. And then that simply offered also a good excuse, and maybe some actually really believed it. But whatever. I think the constructive engagement theory is that and how has that come about? I think, first is the massive increase in Chinese investments, due to China’s shift to more innovation and more high end products. So China has invested more in Europe. And it has also grown into a real competitor for Europe, economically, I think the purchase of the robotics manufacturer in Germany is probably sort of the symbol that it started all off. And that was when Europe, I think, got really serious about discussing protective measures. And the first result was the investment screening mechanism. However, that created, I think, the first frictions, because if you look at Europe, I think there was sort of a division in how much Europeans were actually thirsting for Chinese investments. So there were countries like France, the Netherlands, Germany, the Nordics, that received most investments, but we’re actually not waiting for it. And they were those that were also quite suspicious, what happened to their high technology and their competitiveness in the future. And then there were those countries that were actually hoping for investments and, for example in Paris, in Greece, some of those they were maybe some of those symbolic investments and symbolic necessarily, I’m not belittling here, those investments, I’m just saying that a group of countries like Greece, Portugal, Hungary, or other CE countries have, if you compare it to Northern, Western Europe actually received less investments. And in that sense, I think you had a sort of the first frictions here, those are actually quite skeptic and fearing for the competitiveness and those that were, particularly after the financial crisis, the in the euro crisis, quite eager to get Chinese investments on board. And then, of course, they will also even those inner European dynamics, that approaches like 16 plus one seem to offer to Central and Eastern European countries, access to Chinese leaders that sort of brought with them the hope that they would get more leverage within Brussels to show that they have an alternative partner, somewhere there in Beijing. So so that was, I think, sort of the first friction, then, of course, Trump came over to around his focus on China. I mean, we can criticize Trump for a lot, also a lot when it comes to China. But I also think that Trump singling out China so much, also helped clearing the eyes of many Europeans, that it was sort of it set the general tone, there was also sort of fitting, of course, into some of the sentiments and concerns in Europe. But I think Trump also did sort of his deal. But at the same time, it of course, also, and Gideon has already mentioned that undermined, fundamentally undermine the trust of the transatlantic partnership. And again, I think we saw quite some frictions, frictions among those that saw the need for open strategic autonomy, as they then call it after a while, I think France probably being being here, sort of the strongest advocate for that. And then other particular Eastern European countries, or Central and Eastern European countries, that very much rely on us security guarantees, and that were less willing to sort of go all in for European and for something like technological sovereignty or strategic autonomy. And then I think that all sort of boiled down into this term that otter Gideon has already mentioned, which is the strategic rivalry that first appeared, interestingly, like in a public document, from a German Industry Association, so industry that seemed to be sort of the economic, hopeful default for cooperation with China, had always sort of sustained this constructive engagement approach. And now I think it was the German Industry Association BDI, that spoke of a systemic rivalry with China. And a few months later, you had it also, in this three sided approach of the European external action service in their strategic outlook. And I think, to this day, we do see a frictions around this three sided approach as well, with China being a partner, a competitor and a systemic rival for the EU, because I think there’s two fundamentally different interpretations of that. One interpretation insists that we have those sort of three sides, and these are three pillars. And depending on policy subjects, you put them into one of those three pillars, then I think we are pretty we’re not with not removed far from constructive engagement, though we’ve made it become a bit more assertive. But then there’s those others that say, well, there is three things are not three pillars, but you engage, you must engage differently with a partner, if that partner is at the very same time systemic rival. And systemic rivalry is influenced by the fact that you are also a partner. And the same goes for competitiveness. And I think we have still sort of how much we want to have policy see those that go for either of the three pillars, or want to have more integrated approach, I think that is still quite controversial in the EU. And then came the second shift and I realize the need to speed up here a bit. But but it’s just two shifts. So don’t worry that not much more coming here. And I think that shift mainly came, of course, with the election of, of Joe Biden into the White House. And the question here, then are, how much is sort of Europe back into the transatlantic pocket and how much is it buying that into this rhetoric of democracy versus autocracy is that democracy is always sort of back as Europeans in the democratic camp and closely cooperating. And I think also here, we do see similar, I mean, the Europeans of course agree that we have similar values with the with the US, the question is of course sort of, there’s also a few divide divisive aspects. One is sort of how much relied from European countries or economically on China. And here, I think Germany being, of course, that country that is having such a huge share of European Economic Cooperation with China, both in terms of input imports and exports. So Germany very closely, of course, always considering what price it’s willing to pay. But also, I think, in the question of this, how much we are willing to undermine open strategic autonomy? How much we trust the Americans, I think there’s different perceptions, how much are we trusting that the Biden shift is sort of lasting? Gideon has already mentioned that, but also the question of sort of, how eager are we to develop an independent European stance? And I think there is quite some frustration in France at the moment, interestingly, about Germany, because the French, I think, are sort of much more in this and much more deeply convinced about this concept of open strategic autonomy than than Berlin. That’s. And then, of course, the question is also To what extent is, and that sort of widens probably the perspective a bit to the To what extent is this us need for partners, our relation to China? What where does that really leave Europe? I personally don’t see Europe as a key player for the United States. I mean, it’s geographically distant. There’s a lack of resources, we can sustain our own security, we rely on us security support. So the question is, is you’re really a global actor. And then there’s a lack of unity that I’ve only called out now, in very, very few cases here. And I think as a result, I’m not entirely sure beyond the rhetoric that yes, the US is back, we’ve heard that, that. It, it’s so much back into into the alliance with the Europeans and I personally see pretty much a focus of the US at the moment on Germany, or that I just mentioned in here, the North stream two project with with Russia, where I personally read the comments from the US government as sort of an indication that compromising on that might be sort of part of getting on board with with Germany and China. But also, I think, if you look on actual substance, what what the US does, it’s very much focusing on the court, and not India, Japan, and Australia, and not so much really the EU, which I think makes total sense. And that I would assume, would also, if not now, in the near future, raise concerns among Europeans, I mean, for for good reason to to see what sort of how much are, is Europe really a key player in this for the US? To conclude, I think that this open strategic autonomy, and this this might be sort of a bit of a tangent here is it? I think it would, certainly I think, profit, sort of both sides, it would be in the joint transatlantic interest. It should be in Britain in the joint transatlantic interest, because it would imply, of course, that Europe becomes more credible player in the world and therefore would be also a more credible partner for the United States, in its stance against China, but at the same time, sort of whether Europe goes that way or not depends also so much on how credibly, the US, takes Europe. So we’ll see sort of how that develops. And I think a core aspect and maybe the German talking to me here is the federal elections in Germany and just two sentences about it. I think it’s it’s quite interesting that Angela Merkel’s are being termed the leader of the free world or has been portrayed as such, what I think it’s quite surprising how little vision that leader of the free world this leader had for a liberal world. She’s very pragmatic on China. I think she is also fascinated with China to a great extent. And then of course, having German economic interests here in the in the back of her mind. I do think that we see a hardening of perception of of China in in Germany, certainly Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, North Korea, diplomacy, cybersecurity, 5g, COVID you name it. But it’s also not that all parties that will form government are tough on China. Not sure about Merkel’s parties. That split depends on sort of who’s going to win, to be dominant after the elections, Social Democrats are being also mixed. The only sort of quite unified that will potentially form the coalition or be partners in a coalition are the greens and the liberals. So I would see, I would predict a shift, I’d also predict a hardening. But to what extent? And I think that’s a question. And, yeah, I think I leave it here. I don’t know whether it made much more sense or simply presented sort of all the fault lines and frictions within Europe. But I think that’s where Europe is, knowing that it needs to change, and at the same time, sort of still struggling to find out what its way forward is.
Gray Sergeant 30:49
Thank you, Tim, for that very clear, clear overview, I think I think you’ve provided a lot of clarity for what is a pretty complex situation, as you said, it’s not just division between states, but in states and in the German case, in divisions in parties. So we should keep an eye out for the German elections. And our last speaker is Cindy, who I think we’ve talked about the the values element here. But what do values mean, if you actually can’t deliver the goods and winning the hearts and minds of particularly developing nations, which is certainly something Beijing is interested in, is going to involve actually offering some form of economic assistance, or in the case of COVID, health health assistance. And I know she’s been doing a lot of work on vaccine diplomacy so Cindy, I know you want to talk about that subject and the broader topic as well. Please go ahead.
Cindy Yu 31:45
Thanks, Gray. And thanks for your kind words about my podcast. And yeah, so just on vaccine diplomacy. I mean, to start with, you know, China’s not donating these hundreds of millions of doses that it’s pledged to the rest of the world, you know, a lot of it is being sold, the majority of it is being sold, and some of it is being sold for more expensive prices than others. But what it’s done is that it’s made it into a soft power boon, a PR campaign, where as the Western world was scrambling over each other to get vaccines, you know, America still had its vaccine export ban, China was the one out there to help the rest of you who didn’t have the scientific industries to build the vaccine. And that was their message. And for the first part of this year, it was quite effective. Now, of course, we see that the West is bouncing back, you know, after that the g7, 1 billion doses was pledged obviously with Kovacs, the WHO’s own scheme, the West has actually donated a lot of money and resources in that but we I what I see is that the West is actually doing very little to make a song and dance about it. And you know, this might be completely cynical in international politics, but China’s made a song and dance about it, it gets all the all of these photo ops with local leaders, whether it’s South America or Southeast Asia, Africa, and it pumps those out. And it’s worth saying that Russia is also a player in this game and has also done very well. But the west are slow to that game. And partly is because the West has not dealt with the public health issue as well, within its own borders, obviously, vaccines are much, much more of a live way of getting out of the pandemic than it was China which just shut down the borders. And me this is this might be controversial, but I’m happy to go into it. But for a lot of normal, a lot of Chinese people life has been normal for the last year. So that gave China a head start. I don’t know how effective that will be in the long term. And as they’ve already been mentioned, China doesn’t seem to have allies that are particularly deep allies. So how long lasting are these friendships? And do they have any meaning beyond this idea of anti imperialism that anti Westness that China always likes to talk about? I don’t know if it if it goes that deep. But as Tim has outlined, so well, even if you do have ideological overlap, does that matter that much when it comes to economic interest if EU and America can’t even agree on a way forward with China? So I feel like we do overvalue ideology, a lot of the time. And when it comes to actual actions. Gray, you mentioned your introduction that thought back better world was one of these pledges to tackle China’s Belt and Road initiative. Yeah, we haven’t heard much about it since then. Obviously, China’s Belt and Road initiative, but a lot of it is a great PR campaign anyway, and dig a little bit deeper. And you realize there’s not actually that much substance there either. But for build back better world and, you know, what does it actually going to look like? How much money are they going to throw behind it? Is it going to come with political strings attached? One of China’s biggest selling points for certain aid recipients is that they don’t ask questions about your political system. They don’t care about giving aid or doing it Infrastructure contract for unsavory regimes? Does the West have similar standards? Or are we going to be picking friends based on that, and that will matter for how much alliances are built in the rest of the world as well. I think it’s interesting that how much we consider the rest of the world here in London and also in Washington, which is that when we’re talking about this torture the indo Pacific, other than Japan and India, there are very few other local areas or countries that are really mentioned, Do people really understand the nuances that come with going into a continent like Asia, a lot of people were surprised, for example, that Japan’s the one South Korea to come to the g7 as a to have a seat at the table and that you shouldn’t be surprised, and people who are surprised didn’t understand enough about Japan or South Korea’s wartime history. So if you’re like, a lot of the action that we want to put forward in the West, has to come with greater knowledge has to come with greater thinking strategic thinking about what it is, you can do better than China can. And there are a lot of things that Western vaccines are completely much better than Chinese vaccines, and that no one is in any doubt about that. And so just really having that long term strategic plan is, is probably the right way to go. But I think as Tim outlined, you know, where there’s crossroads where there was not really consensus amongst the rest of the world just yet. So the strategy after that consensus is not going to come just yet, either. And certainly, from China’s perspective, restlessness, as you’ve described, it is the good thing. You know, it’s good to split off Western allies against each other. And it’s interesting that the investment bill, which, you know, arguably, if they’re in the water, China doesn’t think that China thinks that Merkel and Macron are going to come back and bring it back. Because, you know, if you look at a Chinese language reporting around this, they’re saying, Well, you know, background work is still happening, and it’s still being translated, the legal work is still going on. So, you know, don’t don’t give up hope yet. Rethink that Macron. And Merkel will be the adults in the room afterwards. And you know, they might be we don’t know how much economic interest will outweigh that sort of stuff in the very end. But China is certainly hoping that would have less doesn’t unite. And we’re going to have to start to see what actions are going to follow the pledges, the grand pledges that the West have made.
Gray Sergeant 37:24
That’s great. Thank you, Cindy. Well, normally, I’m well, I’m supposed to ask people to put questions in the q&a box. And this time, I have forgotten, but we’ve already got a couple of people asking some questions. So I think I will summarize a couple of the points that sort of have occurred and then ask a couple of people to come forward. I think an interesting point from one of the questions is, we’ve talked about so the lack of strategy – is there a shared consensus amongst the West liberal democracies about what China wants in terms of its its foreign policy objectives? You know, what does it want to achieve regional hegemony? Why does China want wider global influence? And I think one of the one of the points that Cindy picked up on about the bill but better world, and Gideon had written about this. Previously, in the FT. I was just keen to hear his his thoughts on that. And then perhaps also for Cindy and Gideon being the Brits, Brits here, you know, we’ve talked about the Europeans and of course, we are Europeans, if if not, geographically, at least, if not part of the EU anymore. Where does Britain fit into this? We’ve been, we have, I suppose, been placed more in the US camp in recent years compared to to France or Germany. But how solid is our commitment to Biden’s strategy on China? So as I say, I think we’ve got a few more questions, but perhaps if we go round, with that round of questioning, and then we’ll come back to actually we’ll take one from I think it’s Mark Webber.
Mark Webber 39:26
Good to be here. So my question concerns and NATO primarily. Of course, the UK is not in the EU, but it remains a leading power in NATO and the recent integrated review spends a lot of time talking about shift to the Indo Pacific, which I guess is partly determined by considerations of China. And that broadens out to a broader issue of the extent to which NATO is always not a useful tool. for balancing or countering China in some way in light of both Trump and the Biden administration’s moves to try and task NATO to do more in the Asia Pacific region.
Gray Sergeant 40:17
Alright, thanks. I think we’ll start off, we’ll kick off with Gideon.
Gideon Rachman 40:22
Sure. Thanks. There’s a lot of interesting stuff there. On the NATO issue. I mean, obviously, NATO’s primary concern is going to remain Russia. But that, given the emergence of a increasingly close Russia China access, I think, you know, I would guess that the Americans hope would be that the Europeans could do more of the heavy lifting in terms of containing Russia, which would free up resources for the Americans to concentrate more on on the Indo Pacific. That would be the obvious division of labor. But I think that the Europeans, this relates to something that Tim was saying, question about, well, how relevant is Europe to the struggle, I think is a very important and interesting one. I think there’s, you know, it is the case that before the g7, or the g7, was Biden’s first actual trip overseas, but his first sort of summit will be the virtual one was with the quad. I think, if they’re focused primarily on China now, then obviously, the the allies that matter, most the real special relationships now are with Japan, India, if they can get it going, and with the Asian powers, but that doesn’t mean that Europeans irrelevant at all. I mean, I think even on the military front, the US and its allies welcome the fact this comes to the question about Britain, that at least as a sort of symbolic presence of this aircraft carrier going out to the, to the indo Pacific, and it will have American Marines on board, which, thankfully, I think makes it slightly less likely that the Chinese will seem to make an example of it. But also, there’ll be a Dutch ship accompanying it, the Germans are sending ships out to the indo Pacific, slightly muddying the message by doing a sort of friendly port visit to Shanghai at the same time. But nonetheless, there’s, I think, the US, it’s important for the US least for the Biden bunch, to make the argument that this isn’t just about America, and pushing back to maintain its own hegemony, because that’s what great powers do. But this is about rules based international order to use the phrase, and that the others agree with them on this, that they are supporting a set of principles rather than just engaging in a raw power struggle. And in that sense, I think the Europeans are really important. And I think another way that they’re important is that, you know, we all hope that it won’t get to a military conflict, but there’s already a conflict to set the tech standards of the world, which is a really sort of characteristic and kind of new elements of this second Cold War. Now, I think the Europeans are very, very important. I mean, the Americans have made a huge effort to keep 5g out of Europe. They put pressure on the British to avoid doing it now, I think, as well, as you know, if there is anything to this Belton road alternative, the Belt and Road, I think, trying to develop non Chinese tech, which can be offered around the world, that is, you know, as good as reliable as cheap, but doesn’t come with potential sort of backdoors to the intelligence services in Beijing is is that’s going to be a big part of the Western offer. I mean, I think they might win the battle in Europe. I think they’re going to struggle in the rest of the world for the moment because simply we we are behind on this and also on infrastructural projects, I was rather struck. You know, I was asked to moderate a discussion a few months back for the Atlantic Council in the US with the president of Colombia even do Kay who is, you know, in a way very us friendly, educated in America, fluent in English, conservative, very pro American and rhetoric, but as somebody pointed out, but you know, the Chinese are building the metro in Bogota, Mr. President, why are you letting that happen? And he said, Look, they they made the cheapest offer, you know, we want to Metro and they, and they are they they gave us the best offer. So we’re gonna go with it. And I think until there’s not much sign of it yet, Western companies are back in the business of being able to do that kind of infrastructure work fast, cheaply, they are going to lose ground to China. I mean, you know, the projects that too many projects to list and it just another striking one. As a building alternative capital in Egypt, to Cairo, you know, Chinese construction companies Chinese financing. So a lot of this stuff going on around the world and the West is slightly being left in the in the dust on on some of that
Gray Sergeant 45:16
Tim, any thoughts?
Tim Ruhlig 45:19
Yes. I’ll keep it to three brief points. The first, I also like to pick up the question about NATO and build on what Gideon has just said, because it may have sort of been provoked by my comments that sort of the Europeans are irrelevant. I mean, that that’s not how far I wanted to go. First, there is more than China. In the world, of course, I was mainly referring here to the US approach China. And I do agree up to do with Gideon that sort of when it comes to providing legitimacy to the Americans demonstrating that this is more about the g2 and the power struggle, then of course, the Europeans are indeed important. The question is sort of how much of an independent force is the EU when it comes to formulating strategy and policy. And, for one, I’m not so sure how sort of united Europe is to provide such a strategy and policy direction, and two and I’m not totally sure the US isn’t just counting and rightly counting on the fact that even if Europeans dislike it, to some extent, they may buy into a lot, but also not everything. So depends then probably also bit here, on this specific policy area. When it comes to economics, economic cost, I think the story will be very different than when we talk about security, even though there’s an overlap. And that’s where I think the story gets really interesting. Which brings me to my second point, and this is technical standards that that Gideon has just mentioned, that happens to be sort of precisely the main focus of my research, technical standards. And I do see, indeed, a lot going on, I do sort of realize, and I’m glad to see that, on both sides of the Atlantic, this has really been identified as a crucial subject in one where cooperation is really in place. The problem here is that Europe and the EU have very different approaches, very different systems and understandings of technical standardization. And that when you speak to both sides on the Atlantic about what the new EU us, technology and trade council should deliver on technical standards, both sides tell you, it’s extremely important. It’s one of our priorities, and when it doesn’t, and when it then comes to sort of the fact what kind of guidance can can policy really give in that field? They are sort of less sure. Of course, the question is here, sort of how you define technical standards. I mean, if we define it a bit more broadly, those in terms of sort of technical standards coming from market share, then of course, the 5g story tells us a good, a good part of sort of us influence in Europe. on that front, I see it, I see there a mixed picture. And third. And finally, I want to pick up a one aspect that you asked gray and that, is there a clear strategy in the West, or even if I say in the EU, and frankly, I see I briefly respond to that I do. I do believe that is a growing consensus that we need one. But we are still not on the same page. What China really is. I mean, this, it was very easy to sort of just to sort of sketch as long as Trump was there. I think there it was very clear for Europeans where we differed with the US, it has become less clear because also, even people in Berlin have understood that sort of talking about the us wanting to decouple is just simplifying the story. But I’m not sure that sort of this. This acknowledgement of difference in perception of what China wants to achieve has really made already way for a full consensus on what we precisely agree on, I think is still sort of within Europe and with the US and I think to that extent, maybe the election of Biden has triggered a Stronger pressure on the Europeans to sort of come to terms and, and relate themselves to the US. Before it was it was easier to sort of simply distance themselves from from Trump. But I’m not sure we’ve actually already arrived at and consensus of what China is for us. So I don’t I don’t see full fledged strategy yet.
Gray Sergeant 50:25
Thanks. And I think a shared perception of the challenge or threat or whatever people will choose to call is probably necessary before you have that that strategy. Cindy, your thoughts on some of the questions there?
Cindy Yu 50:39
Yeah, on the one about Britain, and, you know, the west don’t have a consensus on what China is. And I don’t even think that this government has a consensus on what China is, you know, I mean, Boris Johnson, if it wasn’t for Coronavirus, I think his China views would be much more under pressure at the moment. But, but as it stands, they’re quite subtle, and they’re not so scrutinized. But Boris Johnson, at the end of the day is, he still believes in doing business with China in a very traditional way. And there are hawks within the Conservative Party who would like to, who know this and who would like him to go much further, but he’s holding steadfastly on to a very, I’m not sure, a cautious, I guess, position on China, he hasn’t gone any further than what Biden has said, when it comes to what we need to do with China. You know, his his integrated review was very much similar to Biden’s speech at the Munich Security Conference, and that’s very interesting. And Boris Johnson is not seeking to, you know, rock the boat with this one. And in within his government, Rishi Sunak as well gave his Mansion House speech recently where he said we had to keep doing business with China. Dominic Raab, of course, has steadfastly refused to call what’s happening in Xinjiang a genocide. And so I think that what is interesting is that actually this government itself, I would describe them as more dovish than America is at the moment. And that will have ramifications once COVID and other domestic political questions have eased in urgency, I think that will come come to the fore. And I guess one other thing to say is that China doesn’t make it easy for Western politicians to ally with China, we’ve mentioned wolf warrior diplomacy. And you know, when it comes to sanctions on the EU, for example, China very well, it just sanction everyone across the board. So it doesn’t make it easy to cooperate with itself. And we’ll have to see what the new ambassador in in London is like in his tone and his approach. And that’ll be very interesting, I think. Because I do wonder how much more steam the wolf warrior diplomacy stuff has left to run?
Gray Sergeant 52:58
That’s great. And we’ve got about five minutes. I don’t want to keep our speakers here any longer than we’ve asked them to be. But if you could take maybe a couple more questions, if you could to Rhyannon who as a question on the Winter Olympics.
Rhyannon Bartlett 53:15
Thank you. I’m just really quickly I was wondering what your views are on the emerging calls for a diplomatic boycott of Beijing Winter Olympics next year. Obviously, the European Parliament discussed this last week and UK Parliament will be debating it this week. What does this show and how significant is it diplomatically?
Gray Sergeant 53:33
Excellent. It was slightly quiet. But I think everybody got that. Yeah. Excellent. And I think there’s a question here, it’s a bit more specifically addressed to Gideon, but about China’s interactions with ASEAN. And if you think it is realistic to expect greater leadership by an ASEAN member versus China, or whether or not they’re going to be sort of hamstrung by presumably economic considerations as well. And then just reading through some of the other notes that there was a question about how firm would Biden be on Taiwan, which I think is a much, much broader question. But it’s clearly something that Washington is increasingly thinking about, according to to Gideon. How does Europe see Taiwan probably not an issue that immediately on it on its on its cards, but there have been talk, I think, in the European Parliament about a simpler investment deal with the Taiwan in response to the collapse of the China one. So it’d be interesting to see if that that will potentially come to anything and what that means about Europe’s approach to Taiwan. And then I think, just build on one of the one of the comments about an aging population in China. And I think that that feeds into a much broader debate about you know, how much can China continue to rise? But, I suppose one of the questions pertinent to our debate might be, is there perhaps a slight overestimation of China’s eventual rise in greatness? And is there much understanding in the West about some of the big challenges that faces not just demographically but also in terms of, for example, its values and actually appealing to to its neighbor? And is there an understand that, you know, China is perhaps not the next world superpower that will be perhaps me overtaking us economically, but in terms of that hard power, and soft power is not going to be that. So perhaps, if you could address a couple of them points as we as we wrap up, and then any closing remarks, each of you would like to make, that’d be great. And we’ll start with a round in same order, as before.
Gideon Rachman 56:05
I agree with Cindy’s analysis of where Britain is. You know, it was interesting at the g7 talking to some of the Australians who were through here, and of course, there’s a sort of unprecedented closeness at the moment in the UK, Australia relationship, but they were pretty blunt that they felt that Boris was still in a sort of cake and eat it mode on China. And, you know, weren’t totally happy by it. But I think that they see it as fresh, precious, and they hope that Britain will will adjust as they come to realize where where things are going or share the Australian analysis of where things are going. ASEAN I think is easy, even less likely to form a coherent policy than the EU for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s less, it’s less organized. It’s a more superficial organization. Secondly, China already has close partners, you know, I haven’t slightly contradicted myself on you know, them having no friends, there are a couple in ASEAN Cambodia has most obviously, which disrupts ASEAN forming of consensus, I think Myanmar, the general is basically as companies in ASEAN become more authoritarian, if something happens, they tend to move towards China. So Myanmar is doing that Thailand, on the generals has, you know, received warmer support from Beijing than it has from the west. So it’s kind of moving towards the Chinese. So there won’t be an ASEAN consensus and then even on pure interest, economically, China is so important as a trading partner and investment partner people are nervous about for understandable reasons of antagonizing them. And I think the Afghan people generally would like the sort of last 13 years to continue, because it’s been a sort of great period for Southeast Asia. And once the Vietnam War ended, and you had a sort of superpower equilibrium, that they’ve had a long period of peace and prosperity. And ideally, you know, the one thing they can see potentially disrupting that is a US China conflict. So they may not get much say in the matter, but they would like to avoid that if they can. And just finally, you know, again, to something Tim was saying about, you know, the EU doesn’t even have a strategy. You know, I don’t think that we the Europeans on here and meaning Britain, and and certainly the EU, are likely to have a very coherent strategy. But but that may not be that disastrous, I mean, I think, possibly more significant as the direction of travel, we’re not going to have a coherent strategy, because there are so many different elements to balance. And in the case of the EU, it’s not a unitary state anyway, so there are so many different interests. But in I think, nonetheless, you can see the countries in the West, gradually moving towards and at different paces towards a more wary and bordering on hostile attitudes towards China. And that’s not going to be completely coherent, absent some really game changing thing like a conflict over Taiwan. But it is the direction of travel, I think it will be reflected in policy, greater pushback on human rights, greater awareness on investment, a greater willingness to at least try to work together as the west where possible. So I think that the kind of golden era certainly over with the UK, probably beginning to come to a close with Europe as well. And so things are moving against Beijing diplomatically, but they are in this enormously strong economic position. So it’s still fine balance.
Gray Sergeant 59:56
And Tim your final thoughts?
Tim Ruhlig 59:59
Yeah, this Thermal, truly keep it short. And I agree with what Gideon has just said. I was sort of picking up sort of on on strategy and maybe when I sound more pessimistic here, it’s more that sometimes I believe that if we, on top of the direction of travel had even a strategy what else could be achieved? But I agree. I mean, that direction is set. And with very few exceptions, I think I think we will we agree on that. I’ll just pick up two very brief points. One is the Olympics question. I mean, it’s easy to sympathize with what the European Parliament has suggested, and with the British Parliament I didn’t know about that is going to discuss how meaningful is it? The question is, what are we talking here about? I mean, are we talking about it is the goal we want to achieve to change Chinese policy, then I think it’s absolutely useless. I don’t think that China will change concrete policy, say it towards wiegers, or in Hong Kong or whatever. Just because of that. Will the Chinese care? Yes, absolutely. I think if you looked at the the 5g approach, I think and here, again, their direction of travel, more assertive on China clearer and trying to you could see you across the board. But you had countries like the UK or Sweden, being very explicit, with with a ban on Huawei. And then other countries, like France or Italy, adopting really a purchase that de facto ban on Huawei as well, but never calling it a ban. And if you look at how China reacted towards Sweden, and how it reacted to Italy, or France, there’s a huge difference. So so I think reputation for China still matters, which implies that I don’t think that a boycott as such would be without effects or wouldn’t be wouldn’t be recognized as a major issue in Beijing. So to me, I shy a bit away from from answering whether I’m in favor or not. The question is, what do you want to achieve here? And once you’ve sort of set what you’d like to achieve, then I think you can judge whether that’s a wise step to take or not, if it’s really about sending a message to China? If it’s sort of part of your overall strategy, then it probably makes sense, if you want to achieve concrete policy change is probably not a good idea. And then finally, do we overestimate China’s rise? Um, I don’t know, let me put it that way. And that’s a bit of self advocation. My book is coming out later this year with Oxford University Press that where I essentially make the argument that China’s sees itself, I think, rightly so as a vulnerable, rising superpower. And vulnerable means, of course, there’s a lot that come that can come in between. But But to say that China is sort of doomed to fail in its great power ambitions also seem far fetched. I mean, I could give a long list sort of challenges, but you probably all aware of them. A lot of internal, a few external, but particularly I think China, Chinese leaders nervous sort of of the bumpy road domestically ahead of them. But also, there has been a bumpy road in the past few years. So hard to predict. But what I want to say here is I think China is very well aware of its vulnerability. And that actually also impacts a lot, how it acts, how it does, both domestic and foreign policy. And that tells us that I think it’s not set in stone, China will become the next great power. But it’s also I mean, we should also be prepared for that. So in that sense, I think working on the assumption that that’s at least a possibility, and that’s not very unlikely. makes absolute sense for the West.
Gray Sergeant 1:04:19
Thank you, Tim. I appreciate that. A lot. Cindy, did you have any thoughts? Anything you wanted to pick up on that?
Cindy Yu 1:04:28
I want to even the Olympics as well. And I completely agree with Tim. And that is not going to change any policy. And so the question is, well, what is it for and I’m not sure that sort of symbolism in the grand scheme of diplomacy is actually going to deliver enough rewards for it to be worth the effort. So you’re going to by boycotting the Winter Olympics. And we saw from the Beijing Olympics, how big of a soft power boon that was China and how important it was not just to Chinese government, but to the Chinese people as well. What a boycott of a non political event does is actually just, you know, politicize that thing without actually having any actual real change. What I’d like the conversation to be about is about supply chains in Xinjiang. We’re hearing a lot more about solar panels made in Xinjiang, what does that mean for the West cooperation with China and climate change? Those are the real policy issues I think we should be talking about. I mean, boycotting the Olympics might make us feel better, that we’re putting our feet down. But we’re not actually doing anything material. So that’s that I would be. I mean, I, you know, by all means, if governments can do that, but I’m not really sure what the result is actually going to, you know, do in terms of our wider China’s strategy. And first of all, aging population. And interestingly, China does have a lot of demographic problems. I don’t think it’s quite there yet, when it comes to being a superpower. And on this irreversible road to superpowerdom. My latest episode of Chinese Whispers, the podcast I hosted is about how millennials in China actually quite pessimistic about their life prospects, though, they’re not like their parents generation where things were only going to get better. House prices are high. Work is demanding, you know, you’ve got all sorts of different work pressures and life pressures that mean, actually, you’re quite, it’s bit like the dynamic we’ve got here, where people think boomers had it so much better than they did, you’ve got that in China as well. So as economic growth slows down, you do see that people within China don’t really feel like they’re living in this great big superpower, I think the way for us in the west to judge that is just to take off our tinted glasses, on either direction. So for on one, we shouldn’t think China is more powerful than it is. And on the other, we shouldn’t always be criticizing China for not being powerful enough, you know, pointing out all of the problems that it has, clearly it’s got both, and I think in COVID, we’ve seen that very effectively, you know, the Chinese vaccines, you know, we should recognize that they’re not as effective as the western vaccines and China, Chinese politicians may say whatever they like about it. But that is just the fact. And China is not, despite all the fury over made in China 2025, a technological superpower, just yet, in the same way that America and even the UK. But on the other hand, Huawei is not just an attractive proposition for a lot of countries, because it’s cheap. It’s also the only company in the world that can do what it does. And so we have to recognize where China has actually leapfrogged. And where China hasn’t quite got it right. And to do that, we have to really just take off some some of our pre assumptions about China, and just really judge it as if China is just another country and do it by almost by case by case basis, I would say.
Gray Sergeant 1:07:43
Right. Thank you. Thank you, Cindy. And thank you, Tim, and Gideon, for speaking at this panel today. I think it’s been a really interesting discussion, we came here to see if there was some sort of consensus about China in the West. And I think that with any question that’s so big and complex is that we haven’t quite come to an answer, but I think we ourselves have got a slight consensus in the sense that we see a general trend away from Beijing. And, and a bit more skepticism, if not a complete clear strategy. And I think a few of us have expressed their, but they seem to think that Europe is there’s still a bit of a Trump hangover, and that is gonna take some time for for America to reassert itself as a reliable leader on the world stage. And I think one of the other things that came from our conversation was perhaps the West isn’t so important in this debate, and actually with the shift of power eastwards, when it comes to US multilateralism in China, maybe it’s we should be talking more about the Indo Pacific and Japan and India and Australia. But that is probably a topic for another day and another panel. So that further ado, I’d like to just thank the panellists for today Cindy, Tim and Gideon and and hope you’ll join us again soon for another HJS event.