At the turn of the 20th century, the question that most preoccupied British policymakers was: What do we do about Germany?
The answer turned out to be two world wars, the collapse of British power and the rise of two new superpowers — the Soviet Union and the United States. The German problem was eventually dealt with, though the cost was enormous.
The overriding geopolitical question two decades into the 21st century is: What do we do about China? It is an even more seismic issue since China, with a quarter of the world’s population and an unstoppable economy already five times bigger than the UK’s and growing, looms much larger than Germany ever did.
U.S. President Donald Trump, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a working dinner after the G20 leaders summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina December 1, 2018
I was about to add that it also seems more malign. That is perhaps debatable. It is certainly more alien. What the past year has surely taught us is that there is a massive and probably unbridgeable gulf between China’s values and our own.
This was again illustrated this week, when the often belligerent Chinese Foreign Ministry accused the Government of ‘lying’ after Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab had declared that China was guilty of ‘barbarism’ in Xinjiang province. Beijing is said to have subjected Muslim Uyghurs there to forced labour.
Yesterday, the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission published an excoriating report full of allegations against the Chinese, including evidence of ‘genocide’ against Uyghurs. This further infuriated Beijing.
Jettisoned for ever are the naivety and shallow optimism of George Osborne and David Cameron, who only a few years ago believed China was so unthreatening and benign that it could be allowed a key role in our telecommunications and nuclear power industries.
In this photo taken Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017, researchers work in a lab of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province
Look at the past 12 months. The ‘Chinese virus’, as President Trump calls it, has laid waste western economies, including our own, while barely damaging China’s GDP. The IMF reckons it declined by an insignificant 1.58 per cent in 2020 and will grow by a whopping 8.34 per cent in 2021.
Meanwhile, the British economy shrank by an estimated 11.3 per cent last year, and might expand by 5.5 per cent in 2021 — if we’re lucky. China has emerged stronger from the pandemic it spawned, while the West has been pulverised.
What can we do about this historic realignment of power? On Tuesday, Boris Johnson enraged the grisly Chinese regime by blaming the country’s ‘demented’ traditional medical practices for Covid-19, suggesting that it could have originated from grinding up the scales of pangolins to aid virility.
Maybe he’s right. Some see the campaigning hand of his fiancée Carrie Symonds, an avid environmentalist who has spoken out about the threats to the scaly (and, it must be said, hideous-looking) mammals.
The old waxworks on the central committee of the Chinese Communist Party will have choked on their soya bean milk as they read Boris’s colourful contribution. But I doubt they have been shaken to their foundations.
China’s President Xi Jinping inspects People’s Liberation Army soldiers at a barracks in Hong Kong on June 30, 2017
More vexing to them will be a diatribe from Mike Pompeo, the U.S. Secretary of State, who in the dying days of Trump’s presidency is expected to produce evidence suggesting that the Boris Johnson/Carrie Symonds thesis falls short.
Far from attributing Covid to pangolin scales, Mr Pompeo believes the virus was cultivated by scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where Chinese and foreign experts have warned of poor bio-security for years.
We’ll have to read the fine print of Mr Pompeo’s allegations, which were first aired without convincing chapter and verse last May. But I don’t think we should simply dismiss them because he is the servant of a psychopathic president, or because our own spooks and the Foreign Office have poured cold water on them.
It is, after all, undeniable that Beijing has been slippery and devious from the outset — covering up the original outbreak, blaming a wild animal market that it subsequently admitted wasn’t responsible for spreading the virus, silencing its own experts, and fending off outside investigators.
Is it really just a coincidence that the pandemic should have started in the city where there happens to be an institute of virology which had been carrying out allegedly risky research on bat viruses since 2015?
Let Mike Pompeo have his say. Whether it will be conclusive I rather doubt. But that is the fault of a secretive Chinese government which has persistently thwarted the kind of investigation which any decent regime would assist.
Even now the China-friendly World Health Organisation (WHO) is poking around Wuhan, but it has reportedly been excluded from the laboratory likely to feature in Mr Pompeo’s dossier.
China was given the right to veto any of the ten international scientists on the WHO team. They include Dr Peter Daszak, who has repeatedly rubbished the theory that the virus leaked out of the Institute of Virology.
Rather amusingly, in view of its apparently sympathetic attitude towards Beijing, the WHO’s experts were last week temporarily blocked from entering China. The body’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, permitted himself a rare grumble.
Does anybody really think it probable that the WHO will get to the bottom of what happened? We’re unlikely ever to know the full truth. But we do know, which is proof enough, that Beijing has been obstructive, clandestine, and uncontrite.
And we also know that the pandemic — whether it came from a pangolin or a bat or a laboratory — has bolstered China’s standing at the expense of the West, and that Beijing is throwing its weight around more aggressively than ever.
It is cracking down on opposition in Hong Kong in violation of the Joint Declaration signed with Britain in 1997, guaranteeing the former colony virtual autonomy until 2047. Last week more than 50 people seen by China as opponents were rounded up.
Only three days ago, it threatened a ‘counterstrike’ after the U.S. agreed to lift restrictions on official contacts with the democratic island of Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a breakaway province that should re-join China.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson chairs the weekly Cabinet Meeting virtually from 10 Downing Street
The vitriol poured on Britain this week pales into insignificance compared to the threats and insults heaped on Australia after it dared to accuse Beijing of covering up human rights abuses and the origins of Covid. China’s official media threatened the country with ‘lasting punishment’.
So how do we deal with a regime that has grown in hostility and swagger since the pandemic began? The truth is that all the brickbats in the world from Mr Raab and the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission won’t make Beijing nicer. In fact, they will only antagonise it.
Britain is too small by itself to have any influence on China. So is every Western country except the U.S., and its power is waning. But President Joe Biden could assemble a coalition of like-minded countries which together might be taken seriously by Beijing.
Would it work? Or would France and Germany, anxious to cut lucrative trade deals with China, break ranks? I don’t, by the way, suggest for one moment that Britain shouldn’t continue to trade with China, though whether we will get a post-Brexit bespoke deal may be doubted.
Whatever happens, the inexorable rise of this increasingly self-assertive and brutal country is going to be an inescapable reality of our children’s and grandchildren’s lifetimes — and I can’t honestly say that this prospect fills me with cheer.