Even to the casual observer, the body language of China’s President Xi was striking: Standing ramrod straight on the red carpet after a near three-year absence from the world stage, he awaited the handshake of presidents and prime ministers in the manner of an ancient emperor receiving satellite rulers.
Xi did not appear like a fellow participant at this G20 summit in Bali, but the host – which was the clear intention of this stage-managed performance, as he stood front and centre, underlining his status as a global force to be reckoned with.
Certainly there has been much to please the Chinese apparatchiks back home.
Particularly significant was Biden’s clear eagerness to engage with Beijing. The US President said he wanted to ‘keep the lines of communication open’, insisting there would be no ‘new Cold war’. Healthy ‘competition’ between the two nations should not become ‘conflict,’ he insisted.
Xi did not appear like a fellow participant at this G20 summit in Bali, but the host – which was the clear intention of this stage-managed performance
The US President said he wanted to ‘keep the lines of communication open’, insisting there would be no ‘new Cold war’
Our own Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, meanwhile, employed a similar form of softly-softly diplomacy – and one that differed sharply from the rhetoric he deployed during the Conservative leadership contest this summer. Then he declared China to be ‘the biggest long-term threat to Britain and the world’s economic and national security’ – which is exactly what our security services would tell you.
Yesterday, in a notable climbdown, Sunak corrected himself: he now prefers to view the country as a ‘systemic challenge’. It was a nuanced linguistic change but a seismic one nonetheless, and one that should be a cause of great alarm.
For this is not the first time our leaders have been guilty of cosying up to this slippery despot.
Turn the clock back a decade, and the then Prime Minister David Cameron and his slick Chancellor George Osborne were virtually bending over backwards to oil the wheels of British-Chinese relations.
Rishi Sunak declared China to be ‘the biggest long-term threat to Britain and the world’s economic and national security’
The consequences of this ‘golden era’ of co-operation – the phrase used repeatedly by Osborne during a five-day trip to China in 2015 – are still being felt to this day.
Back then, the two men in No 10 and No 11 were relentlessly committed to promoting ever closer links with the Communist superstate.
So much so that, a month after Osborne’s visit, the favour was returned and President Xi was given the full red-carpet treatment on a state visit to the UK.
He was treated to a ride down the Mall in an ornate carriage, a 103-gun salute, an address to the Houses of Parliament and a white-tie royal banquet at Buckingham Palace, where he notably eschewed the traditional tailcoat to sport instead an elegantly tailored ‘Mao suit’, so named after the style favoured by his brutal predecessor Mao Zedong.
It was a stark – and deliberate – reminder of Xi’s true intentions: He serves himself and himself only.
Rishi Sunak would do well to remember that today. For Xi may be sporting a more traditional business suit as he smiles and shakes hands at the G20 summit, but he is still the same old tyrant.
Xi may be sporting a more traditional business suit as he smiles and shakes hands at the G20 summit, but he is still the same old tyrant
On home turf, he presides over the ongoing genocide of Uighur Muslims and other minority groups in the northwest province of Xinjiang. Meanwhile, debate intensifies as to whether he is preparing to invade Taiwan – which he views as an inalienable part of China, despite the wishes of the island’s democratically-elected government.
Nor must we forget his blatant lies about the origins of Covid, and the recent brutal oppression of Chinese citizens in a bid to eliminate the virus his state scientists most likely accidentally unleashed. And then there’s the even greater issue of China’s threat to our national security. Today – partly thanks to Cameron and Osborne’s spectacularly naive era of appeasement – our dependence on China is visible across all of society.
Be it in our homes, our schools, our cars, hospitals, our CCTV systems, our telecoms networks or workplaces – so many of the gadgets we use in our daily lives are built by China or made with Chinese components and technology.
The Huawei debacle – which saw the tech company’s contract to build the UK’s superfast 5G network scrapped over security concerns only after construction had begun on British soil – represented an embarrassing and belated attempt to row back on this deep-set mission creep.
Be it in our homes, our schools, our cars, hospitals, our CCTV systems, our telecoms networks or workplaces – so many of the gadgets we use in our daily lives are built by China
And it’s not just infrastructure; Britain is now built on Chinese money too.
Many of our top universities have become fat on generous donations from individuals with links to the nation’s Communist Party, while fees from an influx of rich Chinese students have rocketed.
Recently expressed concerns over the theft of intellectual property by China from our universities’ research departments have come too little, too late. All of this speaks to the great shift of modern geopolitics in recent decades that has seen China come out on top.
In just 20 years, China’s share of global trade has ballooned. Since 2000 it has overtaken all of France, Germany, Japan and Britain to become the second largest economy in the world after the US. Things have never looked better for President Xi.
After all, while the current cost of living crisis bites for the West, Putin’s barbaric war in Ukraine is only boosting China’s position as a global power. Not only is Russia now selling more gas and oil on the cheap to China to replace the markets it has lost in the West, the world has all but averted its eyes from Xi and his hideous regime – which, by the way, is busy aggressively expanding its own military force.
Right now, at least for Sunak and Biden, it seems that taking on another international enemy – particularly a superpower like China – would feel too much to handle.
Many of our top universities have become fat on generous donations from individuals with links to the nation’s Communist Party
But that is simply not good enough. If our proxy war with Putin has illustrated anything it is that we cannot risk appeasing another global agitator.
We have to make a stand on Chinese belligerence and opportunism, and ensure there are certain lines – such as Xi’s designs on Taiwan – that cannot be crossed.
Because appeasement will lead Xi to think we are weak which, in turn, could lead him to provoke a war with the West.
And if you thought the inflationary impact on the West of the conflict in Ukraine was bad due to our reliance on Russian energy, war with China would be in a different league altogether. Our economy and our very way of life is so inextricably linked to China that we simply wouldn’t be able to shut Xi out. This may all sound like paranoia, but we need to be realistic – and cautious.
Western leaders, including the PM, have to walk a diplomatic tightrope. Certainly, we cannot afford to fall out with China – and nor should we be afraid to maintain an open dialogue. Indeed, danger lies in not talking to Xi.
But that doesn’t mean the answer is allowing yourself to be lulled into some kind of ‘special bond’, in the style of Cameron and Osborne.
Many will rightly be concerned over whether Sunak – at heart a ‘Davos’ man accustomed to an international platform of schmoozing and deal-making based on mutual benefit – can truly understand the ruthless lengths the Chinese Communist Party is prepared to go to achieve its goals.
For all the perceived pleasantries, Xi’s China is a dictatorship which will stop at nothing for control. Sunak ignores that at his peril.
Mark Almond is director of the Crisis Research Institute, Oxford