As the lockdown in the West continues, and even just the gentle easing of economic restrictions shows worrying signs of a rise in reinfection rates, a mighty global reckoning is brewing. We are witnessing the beginning of the biggest geopolitical fight since the Cold War ended more than 30 years ago. The liberal democracies of the West are increasingly pitched against that clever, ruthless opponent called China. Increasingly, a phrase that is being uttered is: “China must pay”. But do Western governments really have the collective nerve to ensure this happens?
In every country where criticism of China’s early handling of the pandemic has been expressed, the counter-blast from Chinese officials has been quick and aggressive. It is clear to me that this is because this brutal regime wishes to silence by intimidation all attempts to lay any blame at its door. It is, of course, deeply ironic that as the Chinese Communist Party actively blocks the existence of open social media accounts on its own soil, its diplomats are using those very platforms to spread disinformation throughout the world. I doubt the Chinese care how this looks, though.
The problem for the West is that, thanks to its dependence on China for so many goods, Beijing really has the means to hurt so many nations. Just consider the alarming recent example concerning the European Union. In a draft EU report documenting how governments push disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic, China came in for criticism. This didn’t last long. After Chinese threats to block supplies of urgent equipment to EU countries, the EU’s foreign policy supremo, Joseph Borell, had the offending words expunged before the final report was published. The clear upshot of this is that any future demand that China should pay economic reparations is unlikely to come from the globalists in Brussels. Yes, it is still conceivable that individual EU countries will present their own bills to China, but I wouldn’t have thought this will happen in the short term.
Another measure of the strength of China’s global grip relates to one of the world’s most self-confident nations, Australia. Arguably, until this crisis, it has always dealt with China on its own terms: it has close trade links with Beijing but its government is sufficiently security conscious that, for example, it refused to allow the Chinese communications giant Huawei into its 5G network. Yet suddenly, relations between these two countries are now strained, and Covid-19 is to blame.
The reason for this is that Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, favors holding an inquiry into how this pandemic started and to what extent China covered it up. Given the state of the catastrophe, this seems like an eminently reasonable proposal. Yet China has hit back savagely by threatening to ban imports of Australian wine and beef. It is clear in Australia, and elsewhere, that there will be a painful economic cost to preventing Chinese global supremacy. But, I wonder, do the Australians have the nerve to go down this road? It is far from certain.
With the U.K. now essentially free of the political straitjacket that is the European Union (a final separation is currently being negotiated) Britain could play a very useful role in all this. It has been very encouraging to hear one former foreign secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, emphasizing that this country simply cannot go on having 80 percent of its antibiotics made in China. To quote Sir Malcolm, Britain cannot be “held hostage”. He and Lord Patten, the former governor of Hong Kong, now want the U.K. to recalibrate its future relationship with China. And added to these skeptical noises is growing anger among many Conservative MPs over the allocation to the aforementioned Huawei of a chunk of Britain’s 5G network.
What this means is that the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, may be forced by his own MPs and by public opinion to move the Conservative Party away from its pro-China position. Britain may not be the dominant player in the world, but this would certainly send a strong signal to its allies. Incidentally, I would be very surprised if, in time, Johnson did not back the holding of an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 and China’s handling of it. Certainly, he would have no shortage of public support.
Now, though, the world’s attention is turning to America to see how it will react. Perhaps the state of Missouri provides a hint of what is to come. It has already announced that it is suing the Chinese government over the virus, claiming it “lied to the world” and this led to major economic losses. Whatever likelihood this legal action has of succeeding, one would imagine that President Trump will go even further as November’s election draws closer.
When the U.K.’s Brexit negotiations with Brussels stalled under former Prime Minister Theresa May, Trump offered her a simple piece of advice. He said she should sue them. There was absolutely no chance of her doing this, but the mere fact he suggested this says a lot about the way in which he operates. To that end, the groundwork is already being prepared. Trump has instructed U.S. intelligence agencies to investigate where this virus came from and the extent to which China hid it from the rest of the world. He means business.
And I agree with his stance. China must be made to pay reparations if it is found guilty of a cover-up. But any campaign to force it to do so will only be led by Trump. If he is not re-elected this year, and his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, ends up in the White House, I am certain Biden will take a much softer line. This would be disastrous, for the stakes could not be higher.
The question is: does the world want to live under Chinese domination? I know how I would answer that. Those who feel the same way as me, however, and who do not want to Beijing to have the whip hand, must bear in mind one thing: to win this fight will cost us all a lot.