Post-coronavirus, the UK must find some friends to stand up to China | Martin Kettle

Covid-19 has seen China supplant the US in the global power league. Alliances are now crucial to reject the superpower’s bullying

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


Martin Kettle

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Guardian view on China, Xinjiang and sanctions: the gloves are off | Editorial
Editorial: Beijing wants to silence critics of its treatment of Uighurs. But the impact will be broader


26, Mar, 2021 @6:51 PM

Article image
In Taiwan, as in Ukraine, the west is flirting with disaster | Simon Jenkins
It’s one thing to declare yourself ‘rather dead than red’, quite another to inflict that decision on the rest of us, says Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins

Simon Jenkins

03, Aug, 2022 @3:33 PM

Article image
Outside the EU, Britain faces a bleak future in Trump’s world | Simon Tisdall
The US president is rewriting the rule book that the UK would rely on, says foreign affairs commentator Simon Tisdall

Simon Tisdall

26, Dec, 2018 @12:06 PM

Article image
UK withdrawal from Unesco would be historical and cultural vandalism | Emily Thornberry
Let’s not follow the US president down a road to isolationism, says shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry

Emily Thornberry

13, Nov, 2018 @10:37 AM

Article image
We like to mock Trump, but Britain’s Russia stance is even worse | Jonathan Freedland
When it comes to evidence of Russian intervention in the 2016 referendum, Theresa May is unaccountably relaxed, says Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland

Jonathan Freedland

11, Aug, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
The Guardian view on Huawei and 5G: the risks are real | Editorial
Editorial: Boris Johnson’s decision to green light the Chinese firm’s role in Britain’s digital future was understandable. But maximum vigilance is required


28, Jan, 2020 @6:46 PM

Article image
The Aukus pact is a sign of a new global order | Rana Mitter
The deal has upset China, but it also binds the US into European security, in a world where Nato may be less relevant, says China expert Rana Mitter

Rana Mitter

17, Sep, 2021 @2:55 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on China: unease at home and abroad | Editorial
Editorial: There are real and important problems to address, but Donald Trump’s trade war will not solve them


19, Aug, 2018 @5:03 PM

Article image
The coronavirus pandemic threatens a crisis for human rights too | Afua Hirsch
People could soon be arrested for a sweeping range of new offences in the UK, says Guardian columnist Afua Hirsch

Afua Hirsch

19, Mar, 2020 @7:00 AM

Article image
The Guardian view on Hong Kong: a broken promise | Editorial
Editorial: The city is not the only place that should take heed of China reneging on its agreement


22, May, 2020 @5:06 PM