TAG V-Conference: What to do with China? May 27, 2020

“We have to do China together”.


Headline: The discussion ranged between those who believe the West should seek managed reciprocity via robust engagement with China and those committed to active containment and competition.  Both Americans and Europeans must now demonstrate a shared willingness to confront the hard security choices implicit in China’s rise. If the West is to compete with China Allied cohesion must adopt concerted multilateralism that balances a threat of decoupling with reciprocity. Western institutions and critical values, such as freedom of speech are not negotiable.

The threat: The next five years will be critical to managing China’s rise. China’s ambition is to be the world’s most powerful state and Beijing is systematically investing to that end. The ‘battleground’ is people the world over and the nature of the ‘new friendships’ China is using to tilt globalisation in its favour. The main theatre remains economic and China’s determination to enshrine dependency. However, fail and the struggle between the Free World and Totalitarianism could fast become military. The challenge posed by China is ultimately about the ‘us’ in ‘West, and whether Europeans in particular have the stomach for the ‘fight’. Particular concern was expressed over the inability of the US to effectively respond should China suddenly launch a military assault on Taiwan.

What to do? The West must respond with a determined long-term strategy. There would be several elements: discreet but robust engagement with Beijing over critical issues such as Information Warfare, cyber-attacks and the theft of intellectual property, the establishment of a common strategic understanding and approach, and an honest analysis of the downstream threat China could pose. Building alliances will be critical to which revitalising the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the Trans-Pacific Partnership might be one option. Ultimately, managing China concerns the application of Western power via a Harmel-style dual track of comprehensive dialogue and defence that avoids ‘self-fulfilling war’. Such a ‘precautionist’ approach would avoid isolating China. Equally, the EU and its members must now treat China as a strategic challenger which demands a change in European political culture. A Chinese-Russian strategic alliance would pose a specific danger to Europe and Europeans must take responsibility for turning Russia away from any such alliance.

Next steps: A practical policy review is needed to identify what the US and Europeans can do together. A strong US-European declaration is also needed on both Hong Kong and Taiwan, and solidarity shown with any democratic partner subject to Chinese bullying. Europeans need to make stringent efforts to improve resiliency across the bio, digital and espionage spectrum.  China’s vulnerabilities must also be exploited. Europeans could promote constructive inter-dependency by easing China’s acute food security concerns, conditional on Chinese behaviour. US and European tech-companies should be given the means to compete with state-subsidised Chinese companies such as Huawei. Critically, supply chain vulnerabilities must be identified and reduced, and strategic metals and technologies ring-fenced and protected.

Conclusion: In the wake of COVID-19 the successful management of China’s rise will depend more on application than innovation, allied to shared policy and solidarity across the emerging community of global democracies of which the transatlantic relationship is a central pillar. Respect should be afforded China, but only if Beijing warrants it.


Julian Lindley-French