The West must respond to China’s rise with strategy, not ignorance and complacency

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by CoolFig

The paper is called: “Ballistic Josephson junctions and vertical tunnelling transistors based on graphene heterostructures.” It doesn’t exactly sound like a blockbuster. No one except a handful of physicists should care, right?

Wrong. In fact, there is something curious about this particular PhD thesis even for a layman. Among the funding organisations thanked in its “acknowledgements” section are several EU bodies, a UK science agency, the US Air Force and Navy and, alongside them all, one of China’s foremost military academies, the NUDT, run by the People’s Liberation Army.

In other words, this paper is the product of a rather unusual collaboration between Western research grants and China’s military budget.

Its author, an expert on the material graphene, wrote the paper while studying at the University of Manchester (home to the Graphene Institute) and, judging from his online academic profile, has now returned to the NUDT in Changsha, China. I should stress that I’m not accusing the chap of doing anything wrong. He’s undoubtedly a top-rate scientist and a hard worker. But his career path should raise some serious questions about a global shift that we in Britain have blithely ignored for far too long.

That shift is the rise of China. You might think you have heard quite enough about the rise of China. Donald Trump barely catches breath between complaints about Beijing. George Osborne was known for his slavish kowtows to Chinese dignitaries (including, incidentally, taking Chinese president Xi Jinping to visit Manchester’s National Graphene Institute, which receives Chinese funding).

Yet we, as a country, are guilty of unforgiveable naivety and ignorance about how the world’s newest superpower is extending its influence in our backyard.

Britain is unusual in this respect. In the US, China’s every move is neurotically examined for evidence of a threat to American supremacy. In Australia, think tanks and policymakers have woken up to a massive influx of Chinese money and influence over recent years.

And in Brussels, EU, German and French officials are busy developing a comprehensive strategy for how to manage Chinese investment. Here, much as we agonise and fret over influence-peddling by Russia, Saudi Arabia or Israel, we remain quite amazingly sanguine about China, a country more powerful and significant than all of the others put together.

That lack of interest is not reciprocated. A recent paper published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, which highlighted the physics collaboration cited above, details the startling degree to which China’s military scientists are getting their education and benefiting from open collaboration with Western academic institutions. And their second-favourite destination, after the US, is Britain.

The relationships detailed by the ASPI go far beyond official, government-managed cooperation between our military officials and China’s. They involve scientists from a variety of Chinese military technology institutes coming here to study subjects like advanced weaponry, ballistics, and military supercomputing, and then going straight home.

Some of these students engage in rather off practices, such as removing defence-related courses from their CVs, or claiming affiliation with non-military institutions that no longer exist, obscuring their ties to defence research. While here, the students are managed intensively through regular contact and surveillance to ensure they do not go native and start getting funny political ideas. When back home, they can no doubt expect glittering careers.

What’s shocking about all of this is not that China is doing everything it can to catch up or overtake other countries’ military technological advantages. It is that Western countries, and especially the UK, appear to have no strategy or process for preventing even the most basic kinds of infiltration. We are the softest of soft underbellies.

One of the reasons is Britain’s abiding belief in open exchange and the battle of ideas, combined with the shrewd calculation that if China is going to take over half the world, we might as well benefit. There is nothing inherently wrong with either of these principles, except when they are applied to a naïve extreme.

We need to remember, for one thing, that although we might admire and share some Chinese values – like the belief in academic excellence, hard work, entrepreneurialism and patriotism – this is fundamentally not a country whose political system we should venerate.

If you want to know why, just glance at the most recent horror story emerging from western China. Over recent weeks, it has become clear that Beijing is implementing on of the biggest mass imprisonment and indoctrination programmes the world has ever seen.

In response to unrest amongst the Uyghur ethnic group in the Xinjiang province, the government has locked up anywhere from 100,000 to one million people in isolated “re-education centres”, where they are taught the proper respect for the Chinese Communist Party.

Satellite imagery has recently revealed an extraordinary growth in these prison facilities, where anything, from possessing the “wrong” book to associating with the “wrong” people, is enough to get you detained. The clear-out has been so extensive that Western reporters visiting formerly thriving Uyghur cities report eerily empty streets and queues of families waiting to visit their detained relatives.

This is the raw reality of the Chinese system. The flipside, of course, is that China is also home to some of the most exciting business and scientific developments the world has ever seen. It is already producing many of the most important new technological advances, in fields ranging from bioengineering to renewable energy generation. Western countries can’t afford to cut themselves off from this exciting part of the world even if they wanted to.

What we must do, however, is think strategically about how to manage our interaction with China, protect our technology (military or commercial) and establish principles to guide our decisions. It was all very well being entirely open to the world in periods when Britain, or its ideological bedfellow, the US, reigned supreme.

But to apply the same logic to Beijing is absurd. Chinese companies, universities and artists are subject to a degree of political coercion and coordination we can barely imagine in Britain. There is no line between state and individual in China. In scientific research, its leaders talk of a “military-civil fusion” that would be unthinkable here.

At a bare minimum, therefore, our government needs to start helping British companies, investors, academics and so on to recognise when they are engaging in exchanges that will enrich us commercially and intellectually and when they are unwittingly collaborating with a political regime whose values are fundamentally repugnant and whose interests are directly opposed to ours. If we don’t wake up to the threat now, we might not have the chance later.

Competition with China isn’t a strategy

If the Trump administration were to summarize its own China policy in one word, it would be “competition.” From every official at every level, it’s one of the administration’s few glimmers of consistency the past two years. On Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence delivered a scathingly anti-China speech at the Hudson Institute that gave a sense of moral justification for a long-term competition with China. As one journalist tweeted, Pence stopped just short of labeling the Middle Kingdom “an evil empire.”

Many of the specific points made in the speech were valid, as is a general recognition that the United States is in competition with China.  But the speech, like much of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy, confuses the impulse to confront threats with a theory of the case for how to deal with them. Competition simply isn’t a strategy. And just because Chinese foreign policy demands a competitive response from democracies everywhere does not mean the Trump administration should be — or is even capable of being — the champion that democracy needs.

China under Xi Jinping poses a multifaceted threat to U.S. interests. Pence’s speech did a decent job of outlining the wide scope of that threat. From interfering in the politics of other countries to committing human rights abuses at scale, China exhibits worrying signs that it seeks to re-write the rules in a manner that can plausibly be described as fascist with Chinese characteristics. At the same time, the People’s Liberation Army is positioning itself militarily in Asia such that China can do whatever it will in the Asia-Pacific with the assurance that its military will deter or defeat attempts to counter it. Whether by design or happenstance, China has embarked on a process of making the world less just and less free.

That’s why the Trump administration isn’t wrong to oppose Chinese transgressions against the values of the United States and the international community. This is long overdue. But the Pence speech exhibits a number of problems with the administration’s approach that should prevent us from cheering it on.

First, the Trump administration is celebrating competition with China as if it will reassure liberal democracies abroad that fall within China’s shadow. It won’t. The democratic world doesn’t need or want America to be China’s great power competitor. It needs a champion of justice and a stabilizing force in the world. If that means competing with China then so be it, but it’s not a rallying point or something to be touted.  At this point, proof of competence and impulse control would give far greater confidence to those friends abroad that the United States needs to keep on its side.  But continuing to talk tough about China without advancing a more detailed pitch for how you’ll cope with the threat will only alienate those it needs to reassure.

Second, other than Trump’s highly personalized trade war, the administration’s response to the China challenge has almost entirely been in the military domain. Its most meaningful, non-rhetorical measures have been an expanded defense budget, a military sales package to Taiwan, and more prominent “shows of force” and freedom of navigation operations. Of course, there is a military dimension to the China threat, and the United States can’t afford to allow China to establish regional military dominance. But the military is not the most acute domain of competition right now—political interference in democracies is. Any military competition can and should take place with minimal pomp and circumstance. Maintaining a stable balance of power in the region doesn’t require that you rub your machismo in the world’s face through shows of force and tough speeches. That approach to North Korea last year brought us closer to nuclear war than many realize.

Third, the Trump administration has elected to fight with one hand tied behind its back.  China relies heavily on diplomacy and foreign aid to create favorable relationships and exercise influence abroad. Yet the Trump administration gutted these very tools from the outset. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claims to preside over the “Department of Swagger,” but has a hollowed-out and underfunded diplomatic apparatus.

Fourth, underscoring all of the above, pursuing competition with China only makes sense if you have measures of success in mind and a theory of the case for how to hit those marks.  International rivalries sometimes lead states to do stupid things — misperceiving the interests at stake, making bets that have very low odds of paying off, and taking risks that outweigh rewards. Having a theory in mind that connects ends and means is crucial for mitigating these tendencies. But competition as a rallying cry fails to articulate what those ends and means are.  Competition just means opposition, thinking in terms of relative gains. How does a zero-sum outlook get the United States closer to realizing a “free and open Indo-Pacific?” It doesn’t, at least not on its own.  Worse, the administration appears to be justifying a military challenge to China in nonsensical ways, like mounting a meaningful campaign resisting China’s claims in the South China Sea only after allowing it to establish a fully militarized position there.

The United States needs to maintain a balance of power in Asia that prevents China from exerting de facto dominance. It needs to prevent U.S. technology firms from collaborating with China to create a more Orwellian world. And it needs to stop China from leveraging its economic largesse to corrupt the politics of democracies everywhere.

But those objectives don’t require chest-thumping, swaggering, or muscular confrontation. They require winning friends and allies abroad.  They require international institutions that make it harder for China to bilaterally wield an imperial hand with countries that it should be dealing with multilaterally and in conformity with international law. And it requires managing espionage and intellectual property risks without starting a new “Red Scare.” An administration that exhibits hostility to the rules-based order, and sees power only in military form, is an unlikely champion of justice in any form.

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