Tough talking, boycotts and sanctions, have put Beijing on a collision course with much of the western world. Foreign Editor David Pratt examines whether this really marks the start of another Cold War or if all parties have too much to lose for that?
If I’m not mistaken it’s known as “LARPing” which means “live action role-playing”, hence the acronym LARP from which it comes.
Most of us will have come across examples of it, beloved as it is by enthusiasts – mainly men of a certain age – who dress up and re-enact battles and historical events that are usually connected with warfare of some kind or other.
It was the Canadian author and journalist Jeet Heer, a correspondent with the US-based magazine The Nation, who recently suggested that what we are witnessing right now by Washington policymakers and their allies is a “more sinister form of Cold War LARPing”.
He was talking specifically about the current shift in relations between the West and China, and recreation of political posturing and policies reminiscent of those icy diplomatic times decades ago between the Eastern and Western blocs.
This past week alone we have seen a ratcheting up of Western diplomatic pressure on China, of a sort rarely seen in years, to which Beijing has responded in kind, souring ever further what were already fairly acrimonious relations.
All of this has been brewing for some time, of course, with London and Beijing trading angry words over a range of issues including China’s trade policy and its upturning of the election process, and crackdown on pro-democracy supporters in former British colony Hong Kong.
Then, this month, the UK Government published its integrated review of foreign, security and defence policy that sets out its “Global Britain” ambitions to gain more influence in the Indo-Pacific region as a way to moderate China’s growing global assertiveness that has been dubbed “wolf warrior” diplomacy.
It was back in late February, however, in the wake of US President Joe Biden’s election to the White House, that William J Burns, then Biden’s nominee and now head of the CIA, rang even louder on the already resounding alarm bells over China, warning that it was poised to become a bigger threat than the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
“We have to buckle up for the long haul, I think, in competition with China,” Burns said.
“This is not like the competition with the Soviet Union in the Cold War, which was primarily in security and ideological terms. This is an adversary that is extraordinarily ambitious with technology and capable in economic terms as well,” the then-future CIA chief added.
In the same Nation article in which he compared current US posturing to LARPing, journalist Jeet Heer hit the nail on the head when he observed that this “invocation of the Cold War is no accident, since memories of that conflict are the prism through which current China policy is increasingly viewed”.
For its part, China has now pushed back hard against sanctions imposed by the US, European Union (EU), UK and Canada for what they say are human rights violation against Uighur Muslims in the north-west region of Xinjiang.
For some time, evidence has mounted that the Chinese authorities there have detained more than one million people, mostly Uighurs, at camps, from where allegations of torture, forced labour and sexual abuse have emerged.
Sanctions on MPs
On Friday, Beijing struck back at the criticism, imposing its own sanctions on a number of British MPs and other citizens it identified as leading the criticism against China for its treatment of the Uighur people.
Among those targeted by Beijing are the ex-Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith, two peers, a lawyer and an academic. Some are members of organisations like the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China and China Research Group, while lawyer Sir Geoffrey Nice QC chairs the Uighur Tribunal, which is investigating atrocities against the minority group, and Newcastle University academic Jo Smith Finley does research focused on the Uighurs.
As James Palmer, deputy editor of Foreign Policy magazine pointed out last week, explicitly using sanctions against researchers is a new step for Beijing.
China has, however, previously targeted academics such as the so-called Xinjiang 13, a group of American scholars from universities, such as Georgetown and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who suffered a backlash from China because of a book they wrote in 2004 about conditions in Xinjiang.
But this latest diplomatic standoff is much greater than the mere sanctioning of a few individuals. For what has been unfolding for some considerable time now is a qualitative shift in Sino-Western relations. This in turn begs the question: just how much of a shift is it and whether it is really tantamount to a new Cold War with China or just a convenient cliché?
Few observers would deny that in the
post-Cold War era, the US and its allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific region have been engaged in a strategic competition in the military sphere with China, which has been modernising its forces and increasing their power projection capabilities.
Washington and its allies have consistently tried to limit the transfer of certain military technologies to China – likewise the US has taken deterrence measures against Beijing that have dissuaded the Chinese from settling its many sovereignty disputes in the East China Sea, South China Sea, and across the Taiwan Strait through the use of force.
In recent years there has certainly been a more hawkish view of China from the US with the Trump administration effectively declaring its own Cold War on China and portraying it as an existential threat to America.
While many diplomatic and security analysts agree that China’s more assertive global role poses real challenges for Washington and its allies, they also caution of the dangers in misconstruing the threat and drawing comparisons with the US-Soviet Cold War that don’t stand up to historical scrutiny.
According to Thomas J Christensen professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University, current US-China competition lacks three essential and interrelated elements that existed during the US Cold War with the Soviet Union and its allies.
“The US and China are not involved in a global ideological struggle for the hearts and minds of third parties,” says Christensen.
“Today’s highly globalised world is not and cannot easily be divided into starkly separated economic blocs, and the United States and China are not leading opposing alliance systems such as those that fought bloody proxy wars in the mid-20th century in Korea and Vietnam and created nuclear crises in places such as Berlin and Cuba,” explains Christensen in an article entitled There Will Not Be A New Cold War, published recently in Foreign Affairs magazine.
SOME observers contend that the Beijing bogeyman serves a useful purpose for the Biden administration’s efforts to repair the tattered Western alliance left in the wake of the Trump presidency and which Biden has vowed to sort out.
This emphasis on regalvanising that alliance is perhaps why the US president is said to have taken a dim view of the recent signing of the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment – or CAI – trade deal before his administration had the opportunity of putting together a united response to China’s rise.
That worry for Washington has now, of course, diminished given that the landmark CAI investment deal reached in December is almost certain now to be put on the backburner.
The EU itself in effect all but guaranteed this eventuality the moment last week it led the sanctions charge against Beijing and started the ball rolling by naming four Chinese officials and organisations to face travel bans and asset freezes.
Unlike the US, the EU has sought to avoid confrontation with Beijing, but a decision to impose the first significant sanctions since an EU arms embargo in 1989 following the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy crackdown was a dramatic change in posture. It must have been well aware of the risks it was running with the CAI deal in calling Beijing out. Among those on the EU sanctions list over mass detentions of Uighurs was Chen Mingguo, the director of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau. The EU said Chen was responsible for “serious human rights violations”.
In its Official Journal, the EU accused Chen of “arbitrary detentions and degrading treatment inflicted upon Uighurs and people from other Muslim ethnic minorities, as well as systematic violations of their freedom of religion or belief”.
Others hit with travel bans and asset freezes were senior Chinese officials Wang Mingshan and Wang Junzheng, the former deputy Communist Party secretary in Xinjiang, Zhu Hailun, and the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps Public Security Bureau. The EU called Zhu the “architect” of a “large-scale surveillance, detention, and indoctrination programme” against the Uighur minority in Xinjiang province.
Hardly surprising, then, that the freshly-negotiated CAI trade deal is now inextricably tied up with the latest diplomatic and sanctions dispute and it’s perhaps partly for that reason Beijing has focused its retaliatory moves at the EU. But there is another reason, too, why China has concentrated its response on the EU and hitting back as hard as possible at America’s allies.
“Size matters,” says Joerg Wuttke, the Beijing-based president of the European Chamber of Commerce in China and a board member of the Mercator Institute of China Studies, one of the entities sanctioned by Beijing in its tit-for-tat-response with the EU. “They (China) are more cautious about the US and they go full-on after Canada, Australia and the European Union,” Wuttke told Bloomberg News.
Others watching how things will play out, like Bates Gill, professor of Asia-Pacific Security Studies at Australia’s Macquarie University, warn that this could be just the beginning.
“Both sides, China on one side and other advanced, typically liberal democracies on the other, will be testing the other to see how much pain they can tolerate,” observed Gill.
“There is much more decoupling that can happen, and we should expect it, especially in areas of high-tech trade, investment, and access to capital markets.”
Urge to boycott
ALREADY major companies are feeling the heat of the political firestorm surrounding the diplomatic crisis, as Chinese consumers are being urged to boycott Western brands.
The retailers, among them H&M and Nike, face boycotts because of stands they’ve taken in the past against the alleged use of forced Uighur labour to produce cotton in Xinjiang.
The outrage is said to have been triggered by a social media post from a group linked to China’s ruling Communist Party. The party newspaper Global Times also criticised statements by Burberry, Adidas, New Balance and Zara about Xinjiang as early as two years ago, but this new round of pressure on companies is by far the most intense for some time.
Dozens of Chinese celebrities have terminated contracts or said they will cut ties with the brands, while H&M, the world’s second-largest clothing retailer, has been pulled from major e-commerce sites.
On Friday, award-winning Chinese actress Zhou Dongyu terminated her contract with Burberry as the brand’s ambassador. Burberry had not “clearly and publicly stated its stance on cotton from Xinjiang”, her agency said on Thursday.
These latest boycotts will only up the ante in tensions between Beijing and the West that have run hot and cold for more than half a century.
Ultimately, say many geopolitical analysts, it’s this degree of interdependency between China and its rivals, who also double as its essential trading partners, that will determine how this crisis will play out. It’s worth remembering that whatever tit-for-tat trading of sanctions goes on, the US and China exchange more than half a trillion dollars in goods and services annually, making for one of the top three global bilateral trade relationships.
China, moreover, owns as much as $1 trillion in US sovereign debt, and is the largest market for many US firms. All this before even beginning to consider the EU and other trading partners with China.
So, are we looking at another Cold War with China? Few would call it that but what is currently playing out is undoubtedly a reshaping of a global trade and diplomatic landscape fashioned by new factors and not seen in years. While it’s certainly a lot more serious than “live action role-playing”, it’s still a far cry from the frosty embrace of its Cold War predecessor. At least so far anyway.