Are we in a Cold War with China?

Clive Hamilton

It is remarkable how entrenched Cold War thinking is, even among those, like the editorial board of the New York Times, who warn against ‘glib invocations of the Cold War’ in United States policy towards China.

Like a number of others pushing back against bi-partisan efforts to limit China’s rise to strategic dominance, the Times argues that Beijing’s actions and rhetoric ‘need to be kept in perspective’ rather than be taken at face value. Why? Because compared to the Soviet Union, ‘China continues to show strikingly little interest in persuading other nations to adopt its social and political values.’

This is a conspicuous misreading of the global strategy of China under the Chinese Communist Party and particularly under Secretary-General Xi Jinping. Western democracies, and even nations of the Global South, do not have home-grown communist parties aligned with China in the way the Soviet Union did. Nor is there an intellectual class talking up the wonders of Chinese socialism, although there are plenty of appeasers.

No, Beijing’s global strategy is not built around converting the masses in other nations to its authoritarian social and political values, which is just as well because the proportion of the American masses with a favourable view of China has collapsed from 45 per cent to 15 per cent over the last five years. Instead it has built an enormous infrastructure, known as the united front system, to engage in influence and interference operations in other countries. Its goals are to co-opt powerful elites and to silence critics.

Experts have now exposed in detail this global strategy and the covert, coercive and corrupt means the C.C.P. has developed to implement it. The evidence is overwhelming. Two very recent instances must suffice here.

A political storm has broken out in Canada after newspapers reported a sophisticated campaign by Beijing’s united front operatives, at the behest of consular officials, to shift the outcome of the 2019 federal election in favour of the incumbent Liberal Party government led by Justin Trudeau. The reports have been based on secret intelligence leaked by exasperated intelligence officers whose warnings have been ignored for years.

Although evidence of C.C.P. co-option of elites and interference in Canada is extensive and enduring, Trudeau, himself the target of a long-running influence operation, has refused to acknowledge the seriousness of the threat and is now attempting to suppress demands for a public inquiry.

Across the Pacific, the outgoing president of the Federated States of Micronesia, David Panuelo, last week released a letter detailing egregious interference by China in his nation’s politics and diplomacy. Beijing, he warned, is engaging in ‘political warfare and grey-zone activity’, including bribing elected representatives and senior officials to support Beijing-friendly policies. Beijing has nominated its own person to represent Micronesia at international conferences when the government decided not to send a representative. It has mapped Micronesia’s territorial waters despite attempts to stop it. And it has persistently harassed and threatened Panuelo himself, causing him to fear for his personal safety.

With a population not much more than 100,000, Micronesia covers a vast area of ocean in the western Pacific, so it represents a strategic prize to China. Already Beijing is pushing hard for the opportunity to build a naval base in the western Pacific where its political influence, won in part through bribery, is worrying everyone in the region.

Beijing is not attempting to spread its values and ideology in Canada and Micronesia but it is subverting their democratic institutions through corrupt and coercive interference. It’s not a Cold War; it’s far more insidious than that. If the contours of the contest are not like the Cold War that is no reason to drop our guard to seek cooperation on issues like climate change.

As the author of several books about the perils of climate change, no-one wants to see global co-operation to cut emissions more than I do. Yet it’s folly to think the United States must make concessions to ensure co-operation with Beijing. For Xi Jinping, China’s vast carbon emissions, now more than double those of the United States and growing, are a weapon, a sword of Damocles he holds over all of us. We should not allow him to use it to extract political concessions because he has shown that no promise he makes can be trusted.

Astonishingly, the Times editorial board wheels out the old argument that the United States should act to support the liberals against the hawks within the Chinese leadership. Really? Who are these people? The ones Xi Jinping, the most ruthless Chinese leader since Chairman Mao, has failed to root out? No serious observer believes, after Xi’s crushing of the Jiang Zemin faction, there is any opposition within the top leadership—more’s the pity.

As China’s leaders see it, democracies are riddled with weaknesses that it can exploit to its own advantage. The real question is: Can the political systems of the West resist the influence and interference operations of the C.C.P., which aim to subdue them without changing the democratic model of governance?

There are naïve voices on China—people who characterise themselves as ‘nuanced’ and ‘measured’—who argue that those who take Beijing’s words and actions at face value are ‘hawkish’, ‘hysterical’ and gripped by a moral panic. I’d like to ask them: What would Beijing have to do to make you change your mind? For most, even an invasion of Taiwan—that is, just to be clear, the military conquest of a proud, self-governing, democratic country—would not be enough. There are some, such as former Australian Prime Minister and serial Beijing apologist Paul Keating, who claim Taiwan is none of our business.

That’s the thing about those who become so wedded to a view of the world that nothing can change it. As late as 1939, Winston Churchill was still being denounced for his insistence that Britain should re-arm and not appease Germany. Luckily for us, the ‘hawk’ prevailed.

15 March 2023

Published under Creative Commons —may be republished online or in print for free, provided authorship is clearly acknowledged and it is not edited, except to reflect changes in time, location and editorial style.



More Posts:

© 2023 Copyright Clive Hamilton