In the hawk-dove ornithology of China policy, consider the drongo

In the hawk-dove ornithology of China policy, consider the drongo

Stay informed with free updatesSimply sign up to the Geopolitics myFT Digest — delivered directly to your inbox.The writer spent much of his diplomatic life working on and in China. He is an associate fellow of the Council on Geostrategy, Rusi and MericsThose of us who spend our lives thinking about China strategy are routinely referred to as either “hawks” or “doves”, a crude distinction meant to identify us as either rabidly anti- or slavishly pro-China. The crudity sometimes spills into ornithological fatuity. I have been called a “moderate hawk”. But hawks are born to kill — they do not kill “moderately”. Rather, I consider myself a drongo. Not an idiot, as in the Australian insult, but the bird known for fearlessly defending its nests and young. Similarly, we denizens of democracies have the right to defend our futures, values, society and economic wellbeing against “covert, coercive and corrupting behaviour”, as former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull described Chinese Communist party interference. Turnbull is honorary president of all drongos. Being a drongo should not be confused with being anti-Chinese. I am anti-CCP. So are many Chinese. It is hard not to be, given its record of crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, its disregard of international law over Hong Kong and the South China Sea, its killing of its own citizens (35mn to 40mn souls during the Mao-induced Great Famine, 2mn to 3mn during the Cultural Revolution, and hundreds in Tiananmen in 1989).The point of this ornithological discussion is to avoid the assumption that attitudes to China must be one extreme or the other. That is not to ignore that some, for reasons of self-interest, promote China at the expense of their own countries’ values or security; or regard everything the Chinese do as inherently dangerous.Most of us do not belong to either polarised camp. We read President Xi Jinping’s talk of Chinese socialism’s long struggle to gain dominance over western capitalism. We digest “Document no 9”, which excoriates all the values underpinning our societies. We see the weaponisation of the CCP’s economic system, deliberately undermining our own. And as drongos, we want to protect our territory.But we are also positive about co-operation on climate change, biodiversity, developing countries’ debt relief, global health, and some areas of trade and investment.Which brings me to the D-words. Western politicians talk of de-risking. In July, the CCP’s Xinhua news agency ran commentaries titled “Beware of the rhetorical trap of ‘de-risking’”. De-risking, it said, is “decoupling or de-sinicisation”. They have a point: while de-risking does not have to be political, most instances of the “D word” in a China context are political. It is decoupling, even if western politicians use euphemisms.This is because new technologies affect every aspect of our lives, and the distinction between civil and military uses of technology is being eroded. As a result, the definition of critical national infrastructure (CNI) is widening. Is the smart energy meter in your home CNI? Yes, because if Chinese companies monopolise the supply of cellular internet-of-things modules in smart meters, they could crash the grid. Or is your car — now a computer on wheels — China-built? Less dramatic, but more insidious, is the security threat from data going back to China, whether through telecoms systems, CCTV cameras, routers, car cameras or audio systems. It is not science fiction: last year the UK security services stripped down a government car because data was emanating through its “e-sim” to China.Drongos such as myself accept — with sadness — that there must be decoupling in telecommunications, data, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and most new technologies. We have the right to uphold our security, economic prosperity and system, and values. So does China. The CCP understands the threat, and has already removed as much US and western technology from its systems as possible. Tesla cars, whose cameras are increasingly sophisticated, are banned from military bases and from places Xi visits. Decoupling is just another name for Xi’s policy of “dual circulation”, best characterised as “use Chinese wherever we can, foreign only if we must”. By all means use another “D word” for technological “decoupling” — but be clear about the underlying reality. However we must not allow decoupling to spill over into non-critical areas. We should still trade or co-operate with China where it does not harm our interests. Ministerial visits and dialogue increase understanding.In saying all this, I am not being a hawk, moderate or immoderate. I am a drongo. And proud of it.Video: Has China’s Belt and Road Initiative been a success?

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