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In Xi Jinping’s effort to make China No. 1, he’s forgotten the basics

The rise of China is “multiplying the threats to open societies and individual freedoms and increasing the competition over our values and our way of life,” he said in remarks to a conference on NATO’s purpose for the next decade.

China was not the enemy, he said, yet it was a clear and present danger: “They already have the second-largest defence budget. They are investing heavily in modern military capabilities, including missiles that can reach all NATO-allied countries.” As The Economist magazine headlined its report: “NATO sets its sights on China.”

Illustration: John Shakespeare

Illustration: John ShakespeareCredit:

And China was no longer an Asia-only military force, according to the NATO chief. China was “coming closer to us”, he said, and “we see Chinese forces in the Arctic, in Africa. We see them investing in our critical infrastructure. And they are working more and more together with Russia. All of this has a security consequence for NATO”.

There’s no doubt that Stoltenberg was seeking to cut NATO’s cloth to fit the political imperative of the times. And because the US is the alliance’s principal member, Stoltenberg would know that he’d win Washington’s favour by naming China as a security concern.

But it’s not just Washington. The major powers of western Europe have grown alarmed about Beijing’s intentions too. Germany has toughened its laws to protect companies against Chinese takeover, for instance.

And Britain is rethinking its embrace of China’s cyber champion, Huawei. Government MPs have been angered by Beijing’s behaviour over the pandemic and forced Prime Minister Boris Johnson to review whether the company will be allowed any part in its 5G network.

Illustration: Andrew Dyson

Illustration: Andrew DysonCredit:

But whatever the politics, putting Beijing at the centre of NATO’s concerns is a historic shift. And this point from the secretary-general would be uncomfortable for any American president to hear:
“Compared to China, even the US is not the biggest one. Soon China will have the biggest economy in the world, they are leading in investing in a lot of advanced technologies, and including parts of artificial intelligence, quantum computing and so on, then it’s even more important that we stand together, North America and Europe together, because we cannot manage this alone.”

Stoltenberg said that NATO needed to work more closely with the developed democracies in the Asia-Pacific, “like Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, to defend the global rules and institutions that have kept us safe for decades”.

The G7 is another international outfit that traditionally was unconcerned with China, but it’s increasingly worried, too. The group of seven leading industrialised democracies is an Atlantic-centric shop that traditionally talks economics. But last week Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reportedly proposed that the G7’s next summit issue a statement condemning Beijing’s plan to extinguish Hong Kong’s autonomy.

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At the same time, the European Union published a report naming China and Russia for using the pandemic to “cause harm” by launching a “massive wave” of health care hoaxes, online scams, hate speech and coronavirus conspiracy theories on social media.

In the same vein, Twitter last week killed 170,000 Chinese government-linked accounts that were used to push fake news about the Hong Kong protests, coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Twitter was prompted by research by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Xi could be forgiven for thinking that he could get away with an aggressive campaign for dominance. For years, he did as he pleased, broke international laws and encountered no real resistance.
When Barack Obama told him to stop seizing disputed maritime territories from China’s neighbours, Xi ignored him and paid no price. When pressed, he promised Obama that China would not militarise those territories in the South China Sea. He went ahead anyway. And paid no price.
He found that he could build a complex of concentration camps for the persecution of a million of the Uighur people of Xinjiang, and yet continue to be courted in capitals across the world.

And who knows? Perhaps he will get away with a great deal more yet. But day by day, the world is awakening and Xi’s thrusts are generating a wider resistance and even some pushback. It’s only physics.

Peter Hartcher is international editor.

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