Boris Johnson says it is a mistake to ‘call for a new Cold War on China’. Yet China is, in many ways, a more formidable foe than the Soviet Union ever was. It is more integrated into the world trading system and its economic model is less flawed. This gives it a commercial pull in the West that the USSR never had. Its purchase over businesses and institutions goes some way to explaining why there is such reluctance in the UK, and the West more broadly, to take a tougher line on Beijing. ‘It’s the money, there wasn’t that complication in the Cold War,’ laments one cabinet minister.
Yet in the past year China has made a series of tactical missteps. The most recent was last week’s imposition of sanctions on the EU and UK politicians most critical of the Chinese Communist party. This kind of aggression makes a unified response from the democratic world much more likely.
Deng Xiaoping, who led the modernisation of the Chinese economy in the 1980s, famously declared that Beijing should ‘hide its capacities and bide its time’. This strategy proved remarkably successful. The West chose to interpret China’s actions as benign. Even as Beijing moved away from ‘hide and bide’, the West was still keen to see China as an opportunity rather than a threat. David Cameron and George Osborne attempted to create a new ‘golden era’ of British relations with China. The hope was that being Beijing’s ‘best partner in the West’ would bring investment into the UK.
But since Covid, China has revealed its true intentions and in a way that has made it much harder for the West to ignore. China’s muscle-flexing has been, in the words of one cabinet minister, ‘opportunistic not strategic’. There are signs that this belligerent approach may have backfired.