A China Reality Check

Protesters in Hong Kong demanding democratic reform, October, 2019. Former Hong Kong resident Robin Sears writes that Beijing’s intractability on Hong Kong is now matched by its fixation on Taiwan’s newly re-elected government. Wikimedia photo

As the “peaceful rise” China’s leaders promised amid the country’s stunning socioeconomic progress has proven to be bumpier than anticipated, the tension between Beijing’s global ambitions and the rules-based international order have escalated. Veteran political strategist Robin Sears, who spent six years as Ontario’s agent general for Asia and a further six in the private sector in Hong Kong, writes that now more than ever, Canada must proceed with caution.

Robin V. Sears 

This was to have been a year of celebration of the half-century anniversary of Canada’s landmark recognition, in 1970, of the People’s Republic of China. Instead, we are close to a state of paralysis in government-to-government relations. The bilateral dynamic has not been this bad since the global outrage over the People’s Liberation Army crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Some China watchers say things have never been this chilly.

Canada is not alone in facing a more unpredictable and obdurate China. Not only is the United States entering round two of a potentially disastrous trade war; Australia, Germany, Sweden and many other nations are all experiencing the consequences of a China too easily offended and too often over-reacting to perceived slights. China appears to be drifting toward the brink of confrontation on several fronts.

We need to recognize that our commercial interests in this relationship, while of strategic importance to us more than to China, cannot always take precedence over maintaining the post-war consensus on the rules governing members of the international community. We have made these choices before. We supported—albeit, too late—tough sanctions on apartheid South Africa at some commercial cost to Canadian business. 

The Chinese refusal to give an inch toward reconciliation in Hong Kong is now matched by an almost hysterical reaction to the January 11 re-election of President Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan. Taiwan is the most emotionally charged file in China’s relations with the world. China’s claim on Taiwan as an integral part of the nation goes back to the 19th century. Chiang Kai-Shek’s flight to Taiwan and his successful bloody seizure of the island, cheated the PLA of their final victory over their hated enemy, his Kuomintang army. 

Since the creation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been obsessed by ‘unity’ with Taiwan. They reconciled with one faction of the Kuomintang (KMT) in the 70s, only to be enraged by the creation of a successful political competitor in Ms.Tsai’s party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). In the unending ironies of Chinese history, the CCP and the rump of the KMT are now allies, but in today’s KMT, the CCP has a very weakened ally. Beijing has been blocked at every turn by an increasingly independent nation of citizens, many of whom identify as Taiwanese first and Chinese second. 

Evidence of this obsession was revealed by the PLA Air Force a few months ago when they released a pop video titled, My War Eagles Are Circling the Treasure Island featuring video of fighters circling Taiwan. At the same time, in the real world, the Chinese air force broke a three-decade old convention and flew fighter jets across the line in the Taiwan Strait separating the island from the mainland. One of China’s two aircraft carriers (two more are currently under construction) made two passes in the Taiwan Strait in less than two months; again, a first. In a bombastic reaction to the landslide re-election of President Tsai, the official Chinese response called the result a “fluke,” said her victory had been achieved through massive “cheating,” and declared the winner “evil.” 

The world has never been here before. Today in China the world faces a rich and increasingly powerful authoritarian state, integral to the global economy. The Soviet Union by contrast may not have been “Bangladesh with ballistic missiles,” in the dismissive words of American super-hawk Richard Perle, but neither was it a true global superpower. Strategies to counter Soviet power and influence when the world was easily bifurcated into capitalism and communism will not apply here. China today is not simply integrated into the economy in ways the USSR never was, it is absolutely crucial to it. Cold War era policies of isolation cannot apply here.

On Taiwan, we may be approaching a dangerous precipice. Chinese military capacity is reaching the level at which a “successful” invasion could be contemplated. According to some military observers in Taiwan and Washington, China already has the capability to render blind and useless American, Japanese and Taiwanese command and control systems in targeted cyber-attacks. A military offensive or targeted cyberattack against Taiwan’s economy, energy grid or other infrastructure could draw the U.S. and the West into an unprecedented, status-testing escalation.

Former U.S. Secretary of State and China expert Henry Kissinger, who more than any other has defined and defended the West’s efforts to find a way to work with China, has pleaded for an understanding of our long-term goals and the time required to achieve them. Kissinger draws on the similarities today with World War One. He points out that every statesman in the spring of 1914 would have behaved very differently if they could have seen what horrific consequences would unfold as a result of their choices that summer. They did not have that ability, but we have no such excuse. 

The Communist Party of China’s foreign policy, until Deng Xiaoping, echoing that of centuries of Chinese emperors, had one centre of gravity: the defence of the motherland. China never attempted to occupy distant foreign territories, only those on its borders. Foreign imperial adventures simply did not contribute to the defence of Chinese territory. Mao and even Deng would probably have been deeply skeptical about the PLA Navy setting up a provocative naval base on the Horn of Africa, for example. The massive Chinese Djibouti base is literally beside even larger U.S., French and other military bases and assets along that vital shipping corridor. 

What makes this situation unique, and in no way vulnerable to the “Thucydides trap” whereby when one great power rises to displace another, war is the result, is this: China, unlike Sparta, or Carthage, or even Germany, is already a superpower—militarily and economically—woven deeply into the fabric of the global economy. There is no realistic economic decoupling possible, except at a cost of trillions and decades of destructive effort. 

Here is an indication of the challenge: General Motors already sells far more cars in China that it does in the U.S. Does anyone believe those ratios will be reversed in a market 1.4 billion of still mostly car-less buyers vs. the declining U.S. market? The core of China’s drive toward technological self-sufficiency is the ability to manufacture leading-edge semiconductor chips. Most experts suggest that they are at least a decade away from catching up with today’s chips. A leader in that sector, is ironically, Taiwan. 

We face a multi-layered complexity in today’s strategic puzzle, with one layer being economic, another military, and a third managing China’s global ambitions. Seen through the eyes of a hardline PLA general, China’s strategic position is one of a nation dangerously encircled by increasingly well-armed neighbours who treat the motherland with disrespect. After all, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, India, Burma, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines all regard China with increasing suspicion.

Seen from the perspective of the United States and the West however, China’s efforts to buy influence across vast swathes of territory beyond its borders with the Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, its efforts to threaten access to the South China Sea, its complete rejection of international legal decisions about free passage, its rapidly expanding blue water navy, and its rising rhetorical aggression towards its neighbours, paint a picture of a sobering new strategic threat. 

China has, according to some intelligence observers the largest and most capable network of spy agencies in the world. There’s an emerging consensus that it is at least coming to be America’s equal in this domain. 

Yet no vision is sufficient to understanding China’s sometimes baffling behavior without the inclusion of a final layer: China and the CCP are, and always have been, deeply insecure about their place in the world and their legitimacy in power. The Chinese Communist Party has not had as deeply insecure as Xi Jinping since its first. Mao’s feared class enemies “swarmed like flies” around him at all times. That Xi is in power at the same moment as America’s most deeply insecure president in memory doesn’t enhance global stability. 

Deep insecurity is common among Chinese leaders, and understandable. After all, there have been very few changes of emperor in Chinese history—over three millennia—that have not been violent. The history of the CCP itself is one of regular, often bloody factional battles. The years between Deng Xiaoping’s death and Xi’s installation for life, only a few decades, are the only exception in a century, delivering smooth changes of leadership.

The response to the Wuhan coronavirus is another example of an insecure state’s management of a crisis: first denial and concealment, then partial disclosure, followed by massive overreaction. Locking down 56 million of your citizens and then bringing much of your economy to a standstill are hardly rational responses to a public health crisis. They reflect the ambiguity of Chinese leaders’ thinking about the use of state power in a crisis.

Two threads of Chinese history—the justifiable angst of its rulers about their domestic survival and a suspicion of the non-Chinese world—still form part of the culture of the leadership of the CCP today. 

A secure party in power does not invite international opprobrium and waste billions of dollars building “re-education” camps for its citizens. A secure leader does not regularly proclaim the unshakeable future of his rule—unless he worries that that may not be the case. In finding the right balance, therefore, in a strategic analysis of China’s intentions and likely future choices, each factor deserves weight. 

It is true that China often presents itself on the global stage with a provocative arrogance. There is no monolithic ‘China Inc.,’ but across many of its institutions, one can hear the tension in their leaders’ public statements, veering between overweening confidence and a hesitation revealing an underlying uncertainty. And there is the impact of history in other ways. A popular aphorism used by Chinese leaders to explain their differences to western critics is “Remember, we are the second generation in all the years of the Chinese history that does not have to worry about starvation or war…that changes one’s perspective somewhat on what’s important, and how fast one can move.”

In stark contrast to the authoritarian angst above them is the surging confidence and creative optimism of more affluent, well-educated young Chinese citizens than ever in the country’s history. As you listen to young Chinese business leaders brag about their plans to compete with the world … to compete with the best, be victorious in sports, electronic gaming, AI and on and on, one cannot but be impressed by their dynamism. 

They study abroad in the hundreds of thousands and then maintain the international friendships and networks they develop there. They are proud Chinese nationalists in many cases, but equally at home in the world. It will be interesting to watch the inevitable culture clash between their ebullient international confidence and the xenophobic suspicions of today’s party leaders.

Canada has a long and deep connection with the Chinese people, beginning with doctors like Norman Bethune and missionaries devoting their lives to medical care and education—and a mostly unsuccessful religious conversion project. The relationship grew through massive wheat sales begun by John Diefenbaker during some very hard years in China. It continued through Pierre Trudeau’s courageous step in granting diplomatic recognition to China half a century ago. We have had prime ministers from Pierre Trudeau to Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien who made themselves globally respected interlocutors with the Chinese leadership. We dropped the ball badly under Stephen Harper, recovered briefly with Justin Trudeau, and are today at a deeper and more challenging impasse than ever. 

As we learned in dealing with the equally insecure Leonid Brezhnev and his successors, leaders worried about their survival do not respond well to public threats. Pressure must be applied, but most effectively in private and with predictable regularity and determination. All reports suggest that that is exactly the path our new ambassador, Dominic Barton, is pursuing today as he struggles to find a path that could lead to the release of Michael Kovring and Michael Spavor in the face of the continuing legal battles surrounding Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou—quiet, relentless pressure. 

While public opinion in China on the captivity of the two Canadians and the ongoing conflict over Ms. Wanzhou may be impossible to discern accurately, views of China among Canadians have changed. An Angus Reid Institute survey published late last year showed unfavourable views of the country had risen to 66 percent from 51 percent in 2018. The data also reveal an increasing number of Canadians—70 percent—saying human rights should be more important than trade opportunities in Canada’s dealings with China.

As intractable as the gap may seem between Beijing’s sabre rattling and Canadian diplomacy, threatening to punish China through sanctions or visa restrictions will not move Chinese thinking. We need allies, not volume. Setting rules, establishing proportionate consequences for breaking them, especially when they happen in Canada, or to Canadians, is a must.We should learn from the Australians’ sad experience in this regard.

Canada must wrestle with three kinds of policy conundrum. In each case, whatever choices are made, they will only be effective if their tools and goals are supported by a network of like-minded nations. We have our national interests, we have our commercial interests and we have the defense of the values of the international community, of which we are a respected leader. The Chinese are attempting, however maladroitly, to change the post-war consensus on international values and law—most egregiously with respect to honouring international standards on basic human rights. With our allies, this requires constant and vigorous pushback.

We must continue to press for the release of our two hostages but resist the temptation to tie their fate to China-U.S. relations, or China’s overall human rights record. As one of the nations determined to maintain an international order of agreed rules, we may not always be able to take stands that serve immediate Canadian commercial interests in China. Ensuring the safe return of the two Michaels is one of those occasions.

For Canada now, our challenge is to encourage China to move back from the brink. To persuade Beijing that its interests will always be better served absent confrontation, and that the costs of confrontation would probably be fatal for the future of the CCP in power if they played out militarily. Laying out these benefits to the reputation and status of China is not “going soft on China.” It’s what is required to avoid what Kissinger somberly intones as “making the 21st century as tragic and bloody as the one before.” 

In all our years of nimbly balancing our relationship with the Soviets, the Chinese and other authoritarian regimes, we know three things to be true: quiet diplomacy can work, megaphones can’t; that we need to offer proof of the benefits that will flow from the path we offer, as opposed to the dramatically higher costs of confrontation; and finally, that we speak with one voice along with our many powerful allies. 

Canada has shown great skill in building coalitions to win peace and avoid conflict, even if it is only a violence-free frozen peace, in Suez, in Cyprus, in South Africa and elsewhere. As China and the West move closer to confrontation, it’s again time we put those special skills to use.  

Contributing Writer Robin V. Sears, a principal of Earnscliffe Strategy Group in Ottawa, lived and worked in Tokyo as Ontario’s Agent General for Asia for six years, and later in the private sector in Hong Kong for a further six years.