Paddy Ashdown: China vs Trump could cause Pacific conflict

Paddy Ashdown has been in Hong Kong this week, talking to the Foreign Correspondents Club about international relations and how the relationship between the Chinese leadership and Donald Trump could unfold. It’s not a pretty sight. Here is his speech in full. He revisits the theme of many of his speeches in recent years about the change in the global balance of power as China’s influence increases. He also has some candid and critical comments about the UK’s time governing Hong Kong.

Peace in the Pacific Region, and very probably the wider world, will depend on two questions.

How will the United States cope with decline?

And how will China fulfil her potential as a super power.

Not long after I returned from Bosnia in 2006, in the middle of the era of small wars, I was asked if great wars were now a thing of the past. I replied no; unhappily the habit of war, large and small, seems inextricably locked into the human gene. But I did not believe that, once we were passed the fossil fuel era, the most likely place for a great conflagration would be the Middle East. If we wanted to see where future great wars might occur, we should look to those regions where mercantilism was leading to an increase in nationalist sentiment and imperialist attitudes, as it did in Europe in the nineteenth century. The only region in the world, I concluded, which matched this description, was the Pacific basin. Nothing I have seen in the intervening decade alters this judgement.

We live in one of those periods of history where the structures of power in the world shift. These are almost always turbulent times and all too often, conflict ridden ones too. How new powers rise and old powers fall, is one of the prime determinants of peace in times like this. The Pacific basin is about to be the cockpit in which this drama is about to be played out

The United States is the most powerful nation on earth and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. But the context in which she holds that power is completely different from what it was. Over the last hundred years or so – the American century – we have lived in a mono-polar world dominated by the American Colossus. This is no longer true. We live now in a multi polar-world – by the way very similar to Nineteenth century Europe where balance among the five powers – the so called Concert of Europe – meant peace and imbalance meant war.

We have seen this before. The end of the European empires after the Second World war led to great instability and much conflict, not least in this region. Britain, by and large, accepted her decline and, mostly, dealt with it in a measured and civilised fashion. We will come onto what that means for Hong Kong in a moment. France, by contrast lashed about soaking first Indo China and then North Africa in blood. The Belgians were even worse in the Belgian Congo.

How the United States copes with her relative decline from the world’s only super power, to primus inter pares in a multi-polar world, is one of the great questions which will decide what happens in this region in the next decade. President Obama seemed to understand this. President Trump, it seems does not. His policies of isolationism, protectionism and confrontation towards China are foolish and dangerous. It is foolish because he is abandoning American leadership of the multilateral space and that will not strengthen America as he suggests, but hasten her decline. Its is dangerous because US isolationism will weaken multilateral instruments which are the only means of resolving conflicts and tackling global problems, such as climate change.

China’s position as a mercantile super-power is already established. It was inevitable that she should now seek to consolidate her trading strength by becoming a political and military super power, too. This is a perfectly natural ambition. It’s the way super powers behave – indeed it’s the way they have to behave to protect their position. This therefore, should not, in and of itself, be a matter of alarm or criticism.

It is natural too – and good – that China should seek to fill the vacuum of leadership in regional and global multilateral institutions left by President Trump’s retreat from this space. It is far better for us all to have an engaged China, than an isolated one.

The last great strategic opportunity faced by the West was the fall of the Soviet Union. We should then have reached out to engage Russia, to draw her in, to help her re-build and reform. Instead we foolishly treated Moscow with triumphalism and humiliation, orchestrated largely by Washington. The result was inevitable and he’s called Vladimir Vladimirovic Putin.

We are now faced with a second equivalent opportunity. Can we reach out to build constructive relationships with a rising China?

On the face of it, the signs have been hopeful.

China has seemed keen to be a good world citizen. She has engaged constructively in multilateral institutions – look at the WTO as an example; look at her support for the UN Security Council resolution on sanctions for North Korea; look at her engagement with international forces to tackle the scourge of the Somali pirates around the Horn of Africa; look at her participation in international disaster relief – for instance in north east Pakistan; look at her involvement with UN peace keeping to which she has committed more troops under multi-national command than the United States and Europe combined. Yes, they are mostly in Africa where she has good reasons to want to keep the peace. But there is nothing new in that. Western nations too only send troops to keep the peace, where it is in their interests to do so.

Almost all the signs we have seen over the last two decades seem to indicate that China sees it as in her mercantilist interest to have a more rule based world order – and that is something we in the West should agree with too. It looks as though there could be much which is constructive to work on here.

Domestically too, the movement in China seemed to be in a hopeful direction. The Deng Hsiao Ping initiated process of economic liberalisation has been awe inspiring to watch. Many of us have taken comfort in what we saw as the inevitable fact that economic liberalisation must over time, lead to political liberalisation too. Anyone who understands China and Chinese history understands why this could not be too hasty; understands why Beijing is nervous about loosening the bonds too quickly. But the direction of travel seemed clear. After modernising her economy China would, over time modernise her political and governmental structures in favour of greater democracy – albeit democracy with a Chinese face, rather than a western one.

It was comfortable for those who observe and have an affection for China to believe that in a world almost overwhelmed by conflict, fracture and repression, China would continue steadily moving in the opposite direction; steadily using her power for stability against turbulence and for partnership, rather than raw power and going it alone. We even imagined that, in her ascent to greatness China might chose a trajectory different from that followed by previous super-powers; using her strength to lead internationally rather than succumbing to imperialist temptation.

I do not think China’s true long term interest lies in responding to Donald Trump’s invitation to a dog fight, albeit one which appears to have been postponed after Mr Trump’s effusive glad handing with Chairman XI. China’s interest lies, rather in continuing to build her reputation as a good world citizen and in creating alliances – leading them if you like – in favour of the kind of rule based world which would benefit  both her and us.

Does this sound naive? A little I confess. Yet it remains probably the only hope for avoiding what will otherwise I fear be an inevitable long term progress towards some kind of Pacific confrontation between a declining old power and a rising new one.

Naïve or not, if these were our hopes they have now come up against a jolting reality.

Judging from the iconography of the recent People’s Congress it is difficult not to conclude that what we were looking at was less the emergence of a new China, as the return of the old. A Red Emperor, centralised power, suppression of dissent. These were all – perhaps – necessary for Mao Tse Tung, who had to build a unified state from ashes and a nation which was respected abroad after a century of humiliation.

But the respect in which China is held abroad is not in question today. Nor is her unity and strength. To return to the ways of Mao sits uncomfortably with China’s ambition to be a modern state and can only serve to diminish her reputation abroad.

As for unity, well I know of no instance in history where the sustainable greatness of a nation has been built on a market that is free and a public voice which is suppressed. It is just not in human nature, whether Chinese or otherwise, to be content for long with glorious freedom in one aspect of your life and permanent voicelessness in the other. It is sad – more it is worrying – to note the recent rise in the curtailment of freedoms in the name of national security; the arrest of foreign NGO workers for expressing unwelcome views, the rising number of detentions of human rights activists, including even lawyers.

All this sits very strangely with promises to develop “advanced, extensive, multi-level… institutionalised … consultative democracy” and enhance China’s “soft power”, in the 3,000 word amendment incorporating Xi Jin Ping’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, which was unanimously passed at the recent Congress

I do not believe that the Chinese people yearn for individual freedom and human rights any less than anyone else.

A state whose economy pioneers the future, but whose politics has reverted to the past, is a state founded on an irresolvable contradiction.

Maybe I have read the signals wrong. Foreigners, even those who have studied China for a long time, can easily do that. The proof of the pudding will come in the eating, as we say in English.

And the first slices of that pudding will be eaten – maybe have already been eaten – here in Hong Kong.

It is here, perhaps more than anywhere else, where we will come to know the true nature of Hsi Jin Ping’s vision of “Socialism with a Chinese face”.

At this stage I must do a little mea culpa.

When Beijing says there is a degree of hypocrisy beneath British calls for more democracy in Hong Kong, they are right. Our hundred and more years of rule of Hong Kong as a colony was not notable for its democratic reforms. Learning Chinese here between 1967 and 1970 – a time of considerable public disturbance and bomb attacks, as some will remember – I did not find it easy to defend the British Administration here, let alone be proud of it. Of course we know now that Chou en Lai threatened to re-possess the Colony by force if Britain introduced universal suffrage. Is it unworthy to think that this Beijing “prohibition” on full democracy was not very inconvenient to a British administration which didn’t have much enthusiasm for such things anyway? It would have been possible, even within the constraints set by Chou, for the British to at least to set a direction of travel for Hong Kong by taking small steps towards democracy, even if they couldn’t take big ones. Is it fanciful to suggest that if they had done this, the democratic culture in Hong Kong would have had time to develop into something deeper, more embedded and more mature?

British rule in Hong Kong was economically successful. But politically it was shameful. Chris Patten tried to ensure that the last page of the history book covering British rule in Hong Kong would be different, so that the legacy we left would be truer to our values, than the record of our administration of the colony. Is there hypocrisy in that? yes – some. But to do the right thing in the end, is better than not to do it at all. As Rousseau said “Hypocrasie est le hommage que la vice rend a la virtue” – hypocrisy is the service that vice gives to virtue.

Whatever the motives however, the fact is that the Patten democratic reforms were locked into the Anglo-Chinese International Treaty which enables and protects the Basic Law.

And the heart of that Basic law, is the rule of law itself.

The Hong Kong judiciary is still intact and still independent. But it is coming under pressure. Justice must not only be done, it must also, to gain confidence among the people, to be seen to be done.

The abduction of Hong Kong booksellers into the mainland, simply for having published books critical of China’s leaders, undermines confidence both in the rule of law and in the principle of free speech.

The right to protest within defined limits is part of that law. The right to due process by a judicial system independent of political interference is part of it too. The right to be free from the hazard of double jeopardy if you choose to break the law is widely regarded as a fundamental principle of justice world-wide.

Of course it is the case that those who break the law should be judged. Though whether it was wise for the full might and majesty of a global super-power to come down on three young enthusiastic student demonstrators, one of whom a directly elected legislator who may have overstepped the limit, is a different matter.

But even the judged have rights and these must be protected too.

The effective, just, wise and legal administration of Hong Kong is not an easy matter for Beijing to deal with. One country two systems is far easier to have as a slogan, than it is to put into practice. We should appreciate that.

Nevertheless this is what Beijing has, formally – and by international treaty – put its hand to.

One country two systems is the slogan under which Beijing may want to draw others back to the fold. Honouring scrupulously the Anglo-Chinese deal in both letter and spirit will enhance that possibility. Any perceived failure to do so, will weaken it

Britain, too laid its hand to that treaty. And with some fanfare.

At the time, Prime Minster John Major undertook that “If there were any suggestion of a breach of the Joint Declaration, we would have a duty to pursue every legal and other avenue available to us.” In words which would have reminded every Hong Konger of the famous declaration of President Kennedy that he would always stand by the endangered city of Berlin the British Prime Minister promised that Hong Kong  “will never have to walk alone”. This is not a promise that can be lightly broken because it proves inconvenient to a British Government obsessed with finding trade deals because it wishes to be outside Europe. As Chris Patten has said, Britain risks selling its honour here.

The new mood places new responsibilities on the SAR government, too. If things are to move in a more regressive direction on the mainland then SAR government has an even greater duty to show that it will stand up and defend Hong Kong’s special status and its core values; that it will be an effective voice-piece for your genuine concerns, for example over the co-location of the high-speed rail link.

What happens next here in Hong Kong will be judged by a watching world.

For it will tell us whether the rise and rise of Xi Jin Ping is taking us forwards to a new more modern China, or back to an old one.

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  • Really? Surely not with Boris on watch to act as an intermediary?

  • Geoffrey Payne 29th Nov '17 - 12:57pm

    China does not have a history of democracy or human rights. Paddy Ashdown continues to believe that economic liberalisation will lead to greater democracy and human rights, but where is the evidence? My Google search indicates that no progress is being made at all, see
    It is perfectly possible for a country to have a free market economic model and be run by an authoritarian regime, as we see increasingly these day in the US under Trump. I just think we have to be honest about these things.

  • paul barker 29th Nov '17 - 1:42pm

    The central point about autocracy is that it doesnt work in the long run, Chinas current “Stability” is built on sand. Popular discontent has been increasing & the current Regimes only responses to that have been increased repression & whipping up Nationalist anger against Foreign “Powers”. The inevitable result is going to be another explosion or War.

  • Simon Banks 8th Feb '18 - 8:41pm

    Contrary to Burke, that a country does not have a history of democracy or human rights does not mean it can’t develop these. France was a monarchist autocracy till 1789 and did not develop reasonably secure democracy till around 1880, but it’s a stable democracy now.

    While economic liberalisation (from Communism or feudalism or similar) does not necessarily lead to democracy or respect for human rights, by distributing economic power more widely it makes autocracy more difficult, as do things like increased foreign travel (by the Chinese in this case).

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