The West Has Trouble Adapting its Behaviour to Cope With China’s Role

One of the more interesting phenomena at the present time is the campaign against China, to try to portray it as some sort of evil force determined to rule the world in its own image. The timing of this phenomenon is interesting. For much of the post-World War II period China was largely ignored. “China” in the eyes of the world was represented by the Nationalist regime that clung to China’s permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council.

Even after the resumption of China’s seat on the Security Council had occurred, China still had a small role in world affairs. Its rapid growth to economic prominence began in the 1980s, but at that time its economy was still a fraction of that of the United States. It was not perceived as any sort of economic power, much less a threat to the economic dominance of the United States.

It was only when China’s economy began to dominate that the attitudes of the West also began to change. The Chinese themselves publicly downplayed their increasing dominance in the world’s economy. They still persist in referring to themselves as the world’s second largest economy, and in nominal terms that is true. A far more accurate indicator of relative economic position, however, is to measure an economy in terms of its purchasing power. By that measure China is the world’s largest economy and has been so for several years.

The second indicator of China’s growing economic influence was the development of the Belt and Road Initiative, commenced in 2013. Again, the Western nations took little initial notice of its development. It has expanded rapidly and now includes more than 140 countries from all parts of the world.

The United States has publicly refuted any possibility of becoming a member itself, loyally followed as always by its Australian acolyte. An initiative by the Australian State of Victoria to sign an agreement with China was this year publicly quashed by the federal government when it passed laws to give itself the power to kill the deal.

The attitude of the Australian government to the BRI is curious. China is by far Australia’s biggest trading partner taking around 40% of total exports. The antipathy of the Australian government to participation in the BRI can only be interpreted as not wishing to upset the Americans, whose antipathy to the BRI is well known.

At this year’s meeting of the Group of Seven nations in the United Kingdom, they resolved to start their own effort providing an alternative to the BRI. The source of funds for this exercise are unclear, although it seems that it is being left to private investment. It is difficult to take this initiative seriously. Most of the world’s major companies already have strong economic links to China. They are highly unlikely to become parties to a rival scheme and thereby jeopardise their relationship with the People’s Republic of China.

Apart from the worldwide BRI, China is also a party to a host of alternative arrangements. These include the BRICS nations of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa on the one hand, and more particularly its Asian neighbours through the ASEAN grouping of 10 nations with close proximity to China’s borders.

Russia and China recently marked the 20th anniversary of the China – Russia Treaty of Good Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation. Trade between these two countries has accelerated in recent years. In 2010 China surpassed Germany as Russia’s largest trading partner, and the relationship has accelerated in recent years. In 2020 the value of trade between the two nations reached $110 billion, which while a substantial sum is still a lot smaller than Russia’s $260 billion of trade with the European Union.

What is particularly noticeable is that as China has steadily increased its economic influence, the more it has attracted political criticism. This has been especially true of its alleged treatment of its Uighur population in northern China. China vigorously denies these accusations. The more lurid accusations include one of genocide against the Uighur people. It is an accusation that is refuted by the census data, that shows that the total Uighur population is, in fact, increasing at a faster rate than in the rest of China.

The persistence of the allegations of ill-treatment of the Uighurs points to a different political agenda being pursued by the Western critics. Not the least of their motives is influenced by the fact that the Xinjiang region is enormously rich in natural resources, including recently discovered massive reserves of oil. An estimated 900 million tons of oil and gas was found in the Terim Basin in northern Xinjiang. This find makes China a source of oil on a par with Russia and the United States.

The find has done nothing to reduce the flow of criticism of China. That criticism has little in the way of an objective foundation. China is unique in modern history in refusing to use its economic power to influence the domestic policies of countries with which it has a trading relationship. This is in marked contrast to the behaviour of the for

mer colonial powers, especially the United Kingdom and France, and the behaviour in more recent years of the United States.

The United States has not hesitated to use its power to try and influence nations that had resources they coveted, or they simply occupied parts of the world in which the United States had a geopolitical interest. This involved active interference in the political decisions of multiple countries, economic warfare, economic coercion through the role of the United States dollar as a major world currency, and when all else failed resorting to military intervention.

As the Cuba experience graphically illustrates, getting rid of an unwanted occupying power has proven an impossible task. The dismay of the Cubans at the unwanted American occupation is made worse by the fact that the Guantánamo Bay facility is a major vehicle for the holding of United States’ perceived enemies. For all its pretentions to democracy and the rule of law, the endless detention of its perceived opponents without trial or other resolution of their status makes a mockery of the United States’ claims to be a Government of law and justice.

No such charges can be advanced with any conviction against China. It is unique in modern history in resisting the temptation to match economic power with any sort of political coercion. This has not stopped Western criticism of China’s alleged faults which perhaps tell one more about the conscience of its accusers than it does about legitimate complaints of China’s actions.

The world has changed radically in the past 20 years. The sooner the West understands that fact and adjusts its behaviour the safer we are all likely to be.

James O'Neill is a retired Barrister at Law and geopolitical analyst. He can be contacted at Read other articles by James.