US president Ronald Reagan, negotiating with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, came to popularise an old Russian declaration: “Trust, but verify.” This was sometimes the key to successful disarmament treaties.
Trust is almost entirely absent in relations now between the West and the People’s Republic of China. The COVID-19 crisis, which probably originated in Wuhan, is merely a confirmation of a reality that has existed for some time.
We are in a new cold war and, while it has different dimensions to the period between 1949 and 1989, there are unquestioned similarities.
The Chinese Communist Party has been pursuing a Leninist imperative of the bayonet in foreign policy, especially since the 19th party congress. Historically, in the hands of a brutal practitioner such as Joseph Stalin’s foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, a metaphorical Soviet bayonet was pushed into Western flesh until flesh became steel, then the bayonet was withdrawn. The Soviets pursued this policy after World War II, especially on the status of West Berlin.
If West Berlin was the democratic canary in the Cold War mine, then that role is now being fulfilled by Hong Kong and possibly, in the future, by Taipei.
The bayonet approach bears some similarity to the Chinese diplomatic corps’ “wolf warrior” diplomacy, taken from the film of same name, which would better be called Rambo with Chinese Characteristics.
“Wolf warrior” diplomacy, promoted by Zhao Lijian, who honed his Twitter skills in postings in Washington and Islamabad until he was recalled to Beijing and promoted to be a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, routinely deploys the language of the Global Times, posturing as being forged in fire and fury.
Little is gained by such theatrics, but the Chinese Communist Party has real difficulty in turning the ship of state around. And the West should always bear in mind that Chinese spokesmen often are talking merely for domestic consumption and indeed are emphasising their loyalty to the party through the drumbeating of their declarations.
The Soviet challenge to the West was based on military strength, including relative nuclear parity. This allowed Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev to boast that eventually the Soviets would bury the West.
It did not happen because the Soviet empire and its derivatives in the Warsaw Pact could not match the West in strategic depth or economic prosperity. Led by the US and its allies in Europe under the umbrella of NATO, in Asia with the US-Japan Security Treaty and in the South Pacific through ANZUS, among other alliances, Western resolve held.
In the hands of the CCP, the metaphorical bayonet is now multi-pronged, constituting a full-court press against the West from cyberspace to human rights.
If Gorbachev was right and the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe played an important role in the disappearance of the Soviet Union, then the COVID-19 global pandemic ought to be an alarm call to Beijing, which values regime security above everything else.
For the West, the primary decision is to recognise the contours of the new cold war and chart a course whereby tensions are lowered without compromising our values. After all, as Christopher Clark argued persuasively in his book The Sleepwalkers, about the outbreak of World War I, it is possible, unconsciously, to stumble into a conflict.
The South China Sea seems always on the threshold of military confrontation. Assertiveness on the part of a great power may be respected. But when assertiveness becomes aggression, then all the neighbours should take heed. The Chinese Communist Party has identified pressure points in the East China Sea with Japan; in the Taiwan Strait with Taiwan; and in the South China Sea with just about every littoral nation.
Early commitments from Beijing not to militarise existing islands or creating “new facts on the ground” have proven illusory. Initially, the CCP based its claim to sovereignty over the South China Sea on a 1947 document called the “Nine-Dash Line”. This was a document drawn up by the Kuomintang under the regime of president Chiang Kai-shek. It has even been suggested that Chiang himself drew the nine-dash line, but when the Chinese claim is challenged in security dialogues, the astonishing reply comes back from senior CCP interlocutors that the nine-dash line is irrelevant; China’s claim relates back to the Tang dynasty. Amazing sophistry, given the Chinese claim is the equivalent of Italy or France or Spain claiming the Mediterranean Sea.
The need for a regional strategic consensus, followed by dialogue and accepted protocols involving all those with interests in the South China Sea, especially China, is utterly clear. Only an agreement can resolve and provide the predictability that means hostile incidents are avoided and resources are shared.
A few years ago in Beijing, a senior Chinese strategic analyst told me quietly that I must always understand that Chinese foreign policy simply reflected Chinese domestic circumstances. If this is the case now, then Beijing has more problems than may have been appreciated. For the CCP’s claim on legitimacy is based solely on economic growth and the national pride that it underpins. If the Chinese economy tanks, this posture vanishes.
The original Cold War was largely managed through treaties and the certainty of mutual assured destruction. Treaty arrangements ranged from Antarctica to nuclear testing; from arms limitations to outer space. By and large, these frameworks were effective and multilateralism must now come back into focus. A series of negotiated outcomes — covering disparate issues from freedom of navigation on the global commons, through cyber crime to the rights of minorities — needs to be considered. This will be difficult, but there is no alternative.
Ironically, a path forward was offered by President Xi Jinping in his 2014 address to the Australian parliament. He declared: “Neither turbulence nor war serves the fundamental interest of the Chinese people. While China is big in size, our forefathers realised over 2000 years ago that a warlike state, however big it may be, will eventually fall.”
Insightful words indeed: true then and now, and no need to verify.