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Biden’s good start on China

Feb 23,2021 - Last updated at Feb 23,2021

LONDON — US President Joe Biden’s new administration has begun to show its hand regarding its policy toward China. So far, three encouraging developments stand out, suggesting that the United States will regard the huge, Leninist surveillance state not just as a competitor, but as a determined threat to all free societies.

For starters, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that the Chinese communist regime is committing genocide against Muslim Uighurs in the north-western province of Xinjiang. Moreover, Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, has highlighted China’s failure to cooperate fully with the World Health Organisation (WHO) mission investigating the origins of the coronavirus in Wuhan and perhaps elsewhere in the country. If the Communist Party of China (CPC) has nothing to hide, why has it once again refused to be open about the source of the pandemic?

Lastly, and most important, Biden himself has made clear his determination to work with partners to confront global problems. The CPC certainly falls into that category.

Despite former US President Donald Trump’s chest-thumping mercantilism, Chinese President Xi Jinping would rather be facing a reelected Trump than a Biden-led US. The reason is simple: The last thing China wants is for liberal democracies to come together to constrain its appalling behaviour.

Instead, China wants to pick off its critics one at a time. That is what it tried to do with Australia when Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government called for an independent inquiry into the origins of the pandemic. With Biden restoring American support for multilateralism and international partnerships, the world’s democracies should be better placed to halt the Chinese government’s loutish bullying.

China will label any such coalition of liberal democracies an attempt to launch a new cold war. It is nothing of the sort. China has been the aggressor, and democracies should seek to restrict its damaging and dangerous behavior. We must underline the fact that the Chinese regime not only opposes the values that underpin free societies, but is also totally untrustworthy, breaking its word whenever doing so suits Xi.

June’s G-7 summit would be a good forum to start building the partnership a better international order requires. The United Kingdom will chair the meeting, and should seek to show that it can still play a valuable international role even after its damaging decision to leave the European Union.

The G-7 countries, the US, the UK, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan, have invited India, Australia and South Korea to join this meeting, and I hope they will attend subsequent meetings as well. After all, democracies share an interest in protecting themselves and other countries from the CPC’s thuggish threats and breaches of international rules.

This new G10 partnership should discuss digital cooperation and collaboration in high-tech industries with a view to avoiding excessive dependence on Chinese exports. And governments could share information on how best to confront Chinese espionage, intellectual-property theft, and efforts to use research collaboration to steal knowledge useful to China’s military and its surveillance state.

A new G-10, with other countries as well, should work together more closely within United Nations agencies like the WHO, as well as in bodies dealing with human rights and development policy. We must point out collectively when China assaults freedom, as it has done so blatantly in Hong Kong, or human life itself, as in Xinjiang.

Likewise, we should quietly make it plain to Xi that we will not stand aside if China steps up its bullying of Taiwan. While challenging the “one China” policy today would not be wise, we should welcome more contacts with Taiwan and press to allow the island to take its place as an observer in the WHO assembly. Taiwan is a vibrant democracy with an excellent public-health record. Given the large financial contributions that democracies make to the WHO, and Taiwan’s successful early detection of the pandemic in China, it deserves to be treated decently by the organisation.

Those G10 countries that are members of NATO would also be wise to encourage the alliance, led by its secretary general, to develop policy responses to China’s increasingly threatening behaviour in the Indo-Pacific region.

Finally, although liberal democracies will not always have the same trade and investment priorities, they do have a joint interest in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) working effectively to ensure adherence to its agreed and justiciable rules. The Biden administration could make a good start here by unblocking the appointment of new judges to the WTO’s appellate body, which adjudicates trade disputes among member countries.

One hopes that EU member states will respond to proposals like these by showing some recognition of the threat that China poses to us all. The recently signed EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment will bring few benefits to European economies. Moreover, some EU members are deluded in thinking that the deal will improve labour standards in China and end forced labour there as well.

Unfortunately, European leaders in general, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in particular, are entrusting the development of a serious global role for Europe to the sales departments of Volkswagen and other large German carmakers. I fear that, as a result, the EU is making serious geostrategic blunders in relation to both China and Russia. Surely the Union retains some inkling of what its values are supposed to be.

Biden wants serious and committed partners not only to constrain the CPC’s bad behaviour but also to cooperate with China when it is prepared to be constructive on issues like climate change and antimicrobial resistance. Working together on such matters is of course in everyone’s interest. For the world’s democracies, so is knowing where cooperation must end.


Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is chancellor of the University of Oxford. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.

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