William Hague wrote:
China’s aggressive strategy of divide and rule is a historic miscalculation
Like the Kaiser’s Germany, Beijing is forcing its foes to unite to stand against its bullying and intimidation
History offers no close parallel with the modern rise of China. The sudden emergence of a nation comprising a full fifth of humanity as a new great power is a unique event. Yet as Western capitals take stock of sanctions imposed by Beijing on parliamentarians, diplomats and academics, including British MPs, we can find some historical analogies with the current development of Chinese foreign policy. In particular, we can hear an echo of late 19th-century Germany.
By the 1870s, Germany was the rising nation of the age, building an industrial, diplomatic and military power at great speed. With the artful Bismarck at the helm, it confronted and defeated one rival after another – starting small with Denmark, then dealing with Austria before humbling mighty France – being careful to isolate each one in turn and never to provoke unity among rivals. By the turn of the 20th century, its continental dominance and global role seemed assured. But under Kaiser Wilhelm II, an increasingly aggressive foreign policy became counter-productive, driving Britain, France and Russia to ally against Germany.
There are many differences. China has neither needed nor wanted to pursue its goals by military conquest and has prided itself on a “peaceful rise”. Its diplomatic strategy, however, has been until recently a model of “divide and rule” that Bismarck would have recognised and admired. Any European nations that offended China, in particular by meeting the Dalai Lama at senior level, were punished with a freeze in political relations and threats of economic consequences. Norway, which hosted the award of the Nobel Peace Prize for the incarcerated human rights activist Liu Xiaobo, was picked out for six years of denunciation.
On each occasion, the rest of Europe got on with pursuing commercial ties with China and avoided confrontation. The collective behaviour of Western nations was akin to a herd of antelope when one has been savaged by a lion, keeping clear of the immediate area but rapidly getting back to grazing. When Beijing froze political contacts with the UK for 18 months when I was foreign secretary, I don’t recall any reaction from other foreign ministers except relief it was not them.
China has no doubt drawn the lesson from this period that democracies lack solidarity. We have seemed so focused on commercial priorities and fear of missing out in the global gold rush to the east that we care little about our neighbours being singled out. If dictators have in their mind a stereotype of capitalist democracies pursuing profits at all costs, we unfortunately conformed to it.
Emboldened by growing strength and accustomed to Western division, China under Xi Jinping has doubled down on confronting criticism with an emphatic response, even if that means being rude and aggressive in tone. The last Chinese ambassador to Sweden embodied an approach of being quicker to take offence and sharper in retaliation, informing that peaceful country that “we treat our friends with fine wine but for our enemies we have shotguns”. Australia has been particularly singled out for commercial as well as verbal bullying, with many exports to China suspended.
China’s response last week to the limited sanctions imposed by the US, UK, EU and Canada on four officials involved in the repression of the Uyghurs was true to the “wolf warrior” playbook of diplomacy. Scorning any notion of a proportionate “tit for tat”, China decided to place individual sanctions on dozens of people who have criticised the treatment of the Uyghurs. Somewhat stunned by this, MEPs in Brussels have now turned against ratifying the investment treaty the EU signed with China in January. In this country, universities have become alarmed at the threat of Chinese behaviour to academic freedom.
In a democratic society such as our own, the placing of sanctions on MPs, including Sir Iain Duncan Smith and Tom Tugendhat, encourages all of us to defend their right to free speech. Even for those of us who emphasise the need to find ways of working with China on many global issues, the attempt to suppress criticism will give an incentive to step it up.
The emerging evidence of what seems to be an effort to eradicate Uyghur culture in Xinjiang deserves global condemnation. Vast numbers of people are interned in hundreds of “re-education” camps’; there are clear reports of mass sterilisation of Uyghur women; the whole area is under minute and intrusive surveillance and half a million people are forced to pick cotton. Arguments about whether this amounts to genocide are semantic: it most certainly is the violation of basic human rights on an industrial scale.
Ten years ago, the result of China imposing penalties of any kind in return for Western criticism would have been that others kept quiet. Now, however, the result will be that others speak up. Like Germany by the 1890s, the country is taken much more seriously, and its behaviour in foreign affairs has become more obviously unattractive. Public surveys show distrust of China intensifying. A recent YouGov survey across 24 countries showed more people preferred the US as a world power in all but one of them(Turkey).
In 1895, Lord Salisbury remarked to the German ambassador on the “rudeness of German communications, much increased since Bismarck’s time” and complained that “the conduct of the German emperor is very mysterious and difficult to explain”. Ultimately, such conduct led Britain to end “splendid isolationism” and join alliances against Germany. By that stage, it would be surprising if the ambassador had the confidence to tell the Kaiser that his approach might be mistaken, and was unnecessarily adding to his enemies.
Today it would be appropriate to explain to a Chinese ambassador that an over-reaction to inevitable criticism will jeopardise Beijing’s objectives more than might be realised. The EU and US are driven together just when they were moving apart. MPs who are picked on will win stronger support. The huge and expensive effort to expand Chinese “soft power” will be wasted money. But would that ambassador feel able to recommend to his superiors a more productive approach? Almost certainly not. Chinese leaders are fond of quoting from the mistakes of history. But now they are starting to repeat them.
...take your common sense with you, and leave your prejudices behind...