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Boris, Cicero, and a Cold War with China

Image courtesy Unsplash.

Roar writer Alin C Luca and the emerging cold war between China and the UK.

Criticis of the new integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy claim the UK is not tough enough on China.

The review was published on March 16 by the UK Government. Its purpose is to map the UK’s foreign policy for the years ahead.

Standing at 114 pages long, with the lofty title “Global Britain in a Competitive Age”, it praises the “agility and speed of action” gained from leaving the EU – especially considering the EU’s vaccination buckle. It also tackles issues from cyberspace, nuclear deterrence, and climate change. In the review,  China has been labelled as a “systemic competitor.”

A New Cold War?

Indeed the relationship between China and the UK hasn’t been spectacular in the recent past. China violating the 1984 Joint Declaration on the status of Hong Kong springs to mind. The UK is also expecting economic retaliation from China after imposing sanctions for its treatment of Uighur Muslims. But overall, sanctions as a means of condemnation is common geopolitical to-and-fro.

Worryingly, though, is the new mindset that is emerging.

The historian Niall Ferguson argues that we are in a cold war with China already. There is a fresh wiki page with over 100 references for this new “era”. Lines in the sand must be drawn, boundaries enforced, positions stated.

This Cold War mentality can be seen in the remarks made by Anthony Blinken, US Secretary of State, during his meeting on the 18th of March in Alaska with his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi.

Mr Blinken said that China’s actions in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Xinjiang “threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability.”

Order and Stability

“The alternative to a rules-based order,” Mr Blinken continued, “is a world in which might makes right and winners take all, and that would be a far more violent and unstable world for all of us.”

But, as Henry Kissinger argued, the paradox of international relations is that a peaceful order is usually an unstable one. If absolute stability were to exist, that would entail international uniformity – and that would be a form of totalitarianism.

In diplomacy, moderation and compromise are key. The goal is to accommodate the different needs of different societies. This means acknowledging the existence of different conceptualisations of how a national interprets its actuality.

Mr Jiechi, a top Chinese diplomat, came across as more sensible when he replied to Mr Blinken that: “The United States itself does not represent international public opinion, and neither does the Western world.”

Values & Foreign Policy

Diplomacy based on compromise does not mean staying silent.

On December 10, 1986, Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, rose to the rostrum of the City Hall in Oslo. Accepting his Nobel Peace Prize he said:

“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.”

We should not be silent, respect for moral values is important. But a foreign policy based solely on morality, in a democracy, is prone to schizophrenia. Other countries won’t respect our values if we keep exporting them patchily – the Chinese were quick to point this out.

In terms of values, a crucial reason why the current tensions with China can’t be labelled as a “New Cold War” is the fact that this time there isn’t an ideological fight. Xi Jinping’s approach to foreign policy is far from Mao’s call for a communist revolution abroad.

Back to the Classics

Hence Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister, is right in arguing that a new cold war with China is a “mistake.” For it doesn’t answer the question: with what purpose?

Prime Minister Johnson, who studied Classics as an undergraduate, knows his Cicero and abides by the wisdom offered in De Officiis that: “We should not lend an ear to those who will have it that we should show bitter anger towards adversaries, and who will pronounce that this is the right attitude for a man of proud spirit and courage. Nothing is more praiseworthy or more worthy of a noble and exemplary man to be conciliatory and forgiving.”

Of course, the UK should demonstrate that it learned its lesson that appeasement does not work. That is why deploying HMS Queen Elizabeth in the Asia-Pacific is a welcomed move. It is deterrence against China in their claims for Taiwan and the South China Sea.

But raising boundaries, as the US seems to be doing, at the expense of international flexibility just because it got a new administration that can shout “America is Back” is foolish.

A new cold war is unwarranted. It is important to consider a part omitted in the Integrated Review that highlighted the opportunity for the UK to be the global broker between China and the US.

Cicero said, “it is the mark of the madman to long for bad weather when the sea is calm.”

The sea is relatively calm for now, don’t stir it up.

I write, think, and comment on international political stuff



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