The acid test: Western diplomats ponder the problem of dealing with a more aggressive China


It was an ominous beginning to an ominous conversation about how western democracies should face the growing authoritarian reflexes of China on the world stage.

One of the marquee panels at the Halifax International Security Forum, held virtually this year, began on Friday with a grainy, grey video of an elephant being chased and eventually overpowered by a pride of lions.

It was a stark visual metaphor for Beijing’s relative isolation as a world power — the fact that China is a powerful nation with few allies, while western democracies are overwhelming when they act in concert.

There was, however, a palpable sense of dismay among some of the panellists when the conversation turned to whether the international community is a pride of lions or a collection of kittens.

If we don’t believe what we stand for is better, if we don’t believe in the rule of law, democracy, freedom, why should anyone else listen to us?– Former U.K. defence secretary Liam Fox

Emily Lau, a former democratic legislator in Hong Kong, delivered a sobering warning that China’s expanded political and security crackdown in the former British-administered territory is an acid test of western strength and resolve.

“We are sort of disappearing before the world’s eyes,” Lau said via video conference from Hong Kong. “What is disappearing? Our freedom. Our personal safety. The rule of law.”

Appealing to Beijing for fairness and respect “doesn’t get us anywhere,” she added.

A year ago at the same forum, Lau accepted the John McCain Prize for Leadership in Public Service. She and democratic activist Figo Chan represented the people of Hong Kong in accepting the award after months of street protests and violence that drew global attention.

Lau said she hopes like-minded countries, with core values of freedom and democracy, can work together to “convince China to be reasonable.”

Under an international agreement signed with Britain in the late 1990s, Beijing guaranteed Hong Kong’s system of government, including its political and economic freedom, for half a century. The recent introduction of new security legislation and an ongoing political crackdown violate the spirit, if not the letter, of that agreement, said Lau.

“The way China treats Hong Kong will be very indicative to the whole world of how China will behave,” she said. “If China cannot keep the promise, then how can China act as a responsible, respectable member of the international community?”

There has been a lot of international attention focused on Hong Kong during the past year, but Lau said things have only gotten worse over that time — with the rooting out of opposition members in the city’s legislature, the imposition of the national security law and the postponement of elections.

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Oct. 15, 2020. (AP)

U.S. Democratic Senator Chris Coons — whose name is being mentioned a lot as Washington insiders handicap various candidates for the secretary of state post in the incoming administration of president-elect Joe Biden — said one of the first priorities for the new government will be to reinvigorate alliances.

It may take a lot more than that, though.

Liam Fox, Britain’s former defence secretary, said western democracies are suffering through a crisis of confidence — doubts which have allowed authoritarian regimes to rise and fill the space in the developing world.

“If we don’t believe what we stand for is better, if we don’t believe in the rule of law, democracy, freedom, why should anyone else listen to us?” Fox said. “I believe we have to reassert a belief in our core values.”

With tangled supply chains that wrap around the globe, the business of standing up to China is not solely a political responsibility, said the Trump administration’s top diplomat.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to reporters following a meeting with members of the UN Security Council, Thursday, August 20, 2020 in New York. (Mike Segar/Pool via AP)

“Governments need to do their part,” said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in recorded remarks. He noted that countries which have stood up to China have paid a price for it.

He acknowledged that Canada had “done a good job” but went on to say the corporate sector, which makes an enormous amount of money in China, “has a moral responsibility to think through the activities their companies are engaged in, and whether that is in their own host country’s best national security interest.”

Pompeo made no reference to Canada’s detention of Meng Wanzhou, the Chinese telecom executive, nor to the imprisonment of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

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