Amid the pandemic, the great issues of the day are inescapably immediate and health-centred. But eyes will lift eventually, and as that happens we will notice how the wider world has already changed as a result of Covid-19. A lot of the speculation about the post-coronavirus political world is plain fanciful. But there was a gripping reminder this week about one effect that is now more real than ever: the pandemic’s role in boosting the global heft of China.
The rise of China is of course not new. In some Chinese perspectives, it goes back centuries. Even from a western viewpoint it was already well advanced before the pandemic. But when the Obama administration’s US ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, was asked this week by the Commons foreign affairs committee to assess Covid-19’s impact on the global order, she turned first and without hesitation to China’s rise.
Covid-19, said Power in her evidence, has accelerated all the trends. The US is now decoupling decisively from China. The developing world, bound to China by the debt and dependency of the “belt and road” strategies, is in contrast binding more firmly to it. China’s “wolf-warrior” diplomacy against states that criticise it is increasingly aggressive. Meanwhile, in the global forums, China is stepping in to fill the vacuum left by Donald Trump’s US. Chinese president Xi Jinping, said Power, is now well on his way to supplanting the postwar order based on the western alliance with a new China-centred network.
For proof of this, look no further than what happened at the World Health Organization assembly in Geneva this week. On the one hand, Trump spent the week slagging off the WHO, threatening to withdraw all US funding, promoting quack medical remedies and attacking China. On the other, Xi addressed the assembly, donated $2bn to the WHO for the coronavirus battle, called for a vaccine to be made available to all, and successfully watered down the planned post-pandemic international investigation into Covid-19. Having done that, Xi slapped a punitive 80% tariff on Australian barley to punish Canberra for pressing for a fuller, more independent Covid-19 probe. Stand by, if it takes place, for a similar Xi approach at the postponed Cop26 climate conference.
As the world emerges from its coronavirus bunker, governments will discover a fast changing geopolitical landscape. It will be one in which the authoritarian pull exerted by China is now steadily outmuscling the democratic and rights-based push of what used to be the US-led western alliance. A potent catalyst for this has been Trump’s unilateral retreat into American nativism. But, as Power pointed out, the authoritarian process can be measured in other ways too, including China’s increasing use of cyber warfare against international Covid-19 critics, the more than 80 countries currently governed by emergency pandemic legislation and the upwards of 50 nations in which elections have been postponed, almost without debate.
At this point, we must ask what role Britain should play in this new global order. That question lies behind Power’s appearance at the Commons foreign affairs committee this week. It is examining the Johnson government’s “integrated review” of Britain’s foreign, defence, security and development policy, announced in February. This review was originally conceived as a root-and-branch recalibration of Britain’s role in the world after Brexit. But it has now inescapably evolved into a review of the global post-coronavirus reset too.
Covid-19 is obviously part of any explanation about why the China issue has become a lot more volatile and salient in British politics. It is only 10 years since Tony Blair could write that Britain should ensure that Europe, in partnership with America, should offer China a new global partnership. Every aspect of that proposition has now gone. Britain is no longer part of Europe. Europe is itself in existential difficulty. The US is no longer a partner. Meanwhile China has forged ahead on its own.
But it is not just the Blair approach that is long gone. In his own memoirs, David Cameron explains how he advocated an economic “long game” with China that would give Britain greater political leverage “to bring China into the rules-based international system – through rules on trade, but also rules on climate change, terrorism and human rights.” Cameron even took Xi for a pint in a pub near Chequers. But where, in the Trump era, is that rules-based system now? And where, post-Brexit, is Britain’s leverage in that or any other global order?
Johnson’s Conservative party is struggling to find a plausible answer to this last question. Perhaps the integrated review will provide it. If so, it will need to come up with an extremely realistic containment strategy towards China. This would need to echo the approach – an alliance based on rules, values and engagement to face down the Soviet Union without tipping into nuclear war – that the American diplomat George Kennan crafted in 1946, and which shaped US foreign policy for nearly half a century. Yet it would have to do it in the full knowledge that the UK is nowhere near as powerful as the US was in the postwar world, that the US has defected to isolationism, and that Brexit Britain is itself seen – and partly sees itself – as an alliance breaker.
China in 2020 is not the USSR in 1946. But there is little sign that the Tory party is anywhere close to agreeing on the mature, long-term strategy on China that is needed. The cold war and Euroscepticism both cast long shadows. The bulk of newer Tory MPs, many of them active in the new China Research Group of MPs chaired by the foreign affairs committee chair Tom Tugendhat, now think about China as a threat but regard European allies as the past and thus lack any workable strategy for constraining Chinese power.
Yet Covid-19 has made the question of how to stand up to China more pressing than before. The dilemmas are not restricted to the Tory party or to Britain. Labour has notably toughened its line, as its China spokesman Stephen Kinnock made clear this week. But no single nation state, even the US, can stand up to China and its authoritarian model without alliances, without patient deployment of hard and soft power, and without a readiness to make tactical compromises.
The answer for a medium-sized power like Britain is to have an alliance-based and institutions-based containment strategy and to work with Germany, France, the EU, India, Australia and others to achieve a relationship with China that rejects both Chinese and American bullying. The problem is that this is the one thing that this government, besotted with its self-image of Britain as an independent, buccaneering world player, cannot bring itself to do.
• Martin Kettle is a Guardian columnist