Beneath the endless conferences and diplomatic niceties, at root international diplomacy is always the handmaiden of power politics.
As the 16th century English diplomat, Sir Henry Wotten, so aptly put it, an ambassador can be defined as ‘an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.’ But the eternal contest for international dominance, lurking just beneath this glittering if false surface, never sleeps.
And over the Covid-19 pandemic, the most important political risk event of the first part of the twenty-first century, the mask has slipped, revealing that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is playing a very rough game, indeed.
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Every single day there are new factual data points confirming my clear and plain accusation; once the coronavirus plague was visited upon China, in order to maintain its relative geopolitical position, initially (December 2018-Janaury 2019) it did everything in its power to obfuscate, delay, and under-emphasise the crisis, allowing it to spread to a largely unsuspecting world.
For example, this past Thursday, Hong Kong University’s School of Public Health released a study, outlining that more than 232,000 Chinese might well have been initially infected with the coronavirus in its first wave, fully four times the official figures.
There is a simple answer as to why the CCP went to such lengths to obscure the extent of the virus; it is acutely aware that it is locked in a Cold War with the US and its allies for dominance in our new era, whether we are or not. Analysis must now centre around what in policy terms we in the West must do about this now clear fact.
First, the initial contest will play out in the field of public diplomacy. Here the CCP–using its comparative advantage of getting through the virus first–is pursuing its geostrategic interests via ‘mask diplomacy,’ trying to change the basic narrative by offering hard-hit countries medical supplies, both as a showy humanitarian gesture and as a sign of their system’s supposed superiority.
Beyond the point that much of these supplies must be paid for and some are defective, the whole exercise is a bit like a burglar robbing your house, only to offer you cab fare to a hotel. In the face of this infuriating (but surprisingly effective) Chinese public diplomacy push, we in the West must continue to shout from the rooftops that it is the CCP itself that allowed the virus to spread to the rest of us. We must not allow Beijing to escape blame for immiserating our world.
Second, there must be a diversification of supply chains away from a country that is our primary competitor. While this will be both painful and take time, it is a price well worth paying not to leave ourselves, for example, at the tender mercies of Beijing in terms of its overwhelming production of the medicines we use.
In addition, a further enmeshing of our core economic functions with China is no longer merely naïve; it is strategically suicidal. This brings me nicely to the British government’s inexplicable decision to allow Huawei–a state-sponsored Chinese company founded by former members of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)—to have a significant stake in the construction of the UK’s crucial 5G networks.
I do not care if the Swedish or Finnish alternatives cost more money, and neither should the citizens of this country. Just as the UK would never have let the KGB run its phone networks in the 1980s, nor should Huawei be allowed anywhere near Britain’s 5G network now. This ill-advised decision must be overturned immediately.
Finally, what the CCP has done (akin to manslaughter) must be made a central organising fact in the rejuvenation of our alliances. Much more explicit anti-CCP defence strategies must be established, linking a global League of Democracies that comprises the Quad-plus in Asia (US, Australia, Japan, India, plus Taiwan), NATO, and the Anglosphere core (US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand). This League of Democracies, designed explicitly to contain the CCP’s increasingly expansionist foreign policy, must serve as the strategic long-term consequence of what the Chinese have done.
The Chinese have made it crystal clear that a Cold War for dominance of our new world is the defining characteristic of our age. It is now up to us to either respond to the CCP’s obviously malign intentions, or meekly and decadently acquiesce in living a world where they can blithely get away with infecting the rest of us. The mask has slipped; the choice is ours.