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The West has yet to grasp we have moved fast into a world crisis that leads to war – Charles Moore for The Telegraph – 17.05.24

Xi explicitly links Putin’s aggression with China’s opportunity in Taiwan. We must join the dots as well.


Isolationism is a good instinct but a bad policy. The difference between home and everywhere else is vital to the human psyche and to national existence. Logically, it leads to respect for others: they have their homes, too, so neither should interfere with the other. 


Sometimes, though, others do interfere. When that happens, isolationist voices, like those Republican congressmen who held up aid to Ukraine for six months, say: “What’s it got to do with us?” Paradoxically, they make foreign interference more likely. Enemies are interfering now.


Western public opinion and many Western governments still won’t face what it means. Rishi Sunak’s remarks this week about the coming insecurities were an attempt, somewhat policy-light, to do so. 


I spent Thursday on Romney Marsh, that strange expanse of the south coast which was reclaimed from the sea in the Middle Ages. The 700-year-old Corporation of Romney Marsh has a motto: “Serve God, honour the King, but first maintain the sea wall.” 


On the marsh, the sea wall is an ever-present physical fact. Without it, the place would go under water. For a country like ours, it offers a vital metaphor. Our nation will not survive naturally and unaided, but by our own constant efforts to maintain it


 

Because we have been a global power for 300 years, Britain is well placed to take a large view of these efforts. We know that it is not only a matter of defending our own coast, but of sea-lanes, trade routes, air space, and now of cyber-space; also of diplomatic links, military alliances, common political and legal cultures, shared language and more. 


For over a century, we have understood the concept of a “World Crisis” (the title of Churchill’s history of the Great War), and therefore of the need, in extremis, to fight world wars. Though the cost was terrible in both of them, we won. 


A similar understanding of global threats led the West to fight the Cold War. Nowadays, as China, Russia and Iran become more menacing, some people say: “Oh, we mustn’t have another Cold War.” They are forgetting that it was so-called not because it was unfriendly (though it was), but because it avoided a hot war of fighting and killing. The Western victory in 1989 therefore seemed less dramatically glorious than in 1918 or 1945, but really it was much better.


Yet in that great year of 1989, a young KGB officer in East Germany, Vladimir Putin, watched with dismay and, it seems, vowed revenge. In China, the ruling Communist Party (CCP), frightened by the world’s new liberty virus, decided to massacre thousands of students in Tiananmen Square. The CCP was determined not to go the way of the Soviet Union. 


Xi Jinping’s China has been more successful than Putin’s Russia in imposing its own dictatorial power across the world. His Belt and Road Initiative is a huge strategic network to alter the control of sea and land routes and therefore the flow of natural resources in China’s favour. He has been more comprehensive than Putin in corrupting Western elites, businesses, and universities. But the commonalities between the two are strong. Like Hitler, Putin and Xi have ransacked history to develop their own self-justifying theory of conquest. 


Before invading Ukraine in 2022, Putin wrote a long essay (recently regurgitated on television to a credulous Tucker Carlson) asserting that Ukraine had never really existed at all. Xi’s “Thought” claims that Taiwan has always been part of “One China”. 


Last year, he pointedly visited China’s National Archives to consult “The Great Qing Dynasty’s Complete Map of All Under Heaven”, which is taken to indicate that Taiwan and various Japanese islands were parts of the Chinese empire. In both countries, patriotism is being, almost literally, weaponised to justify nationalist/imperialist expansion. (By the way, those Hamas supporters shouting “From the river to the sea” on London streets are attempting a similar historical trick – erasing the rights of another nation, Israel, to claim land as their own.) 


The West let this happen. Putin several times tested our resolve to prevent the borders of Europe being changed by force – most notably in Crimea in 2014. He found it wanting and took his chance. He has still not been defeated and has freely rearmed. 


Faced by the same sort of freedom-seeking threats as terrified the CCP in Tiananmen Square, Xi Jinping tore up the “One Country, Two Systems” Hong Kong treaty between China and Britain and brought the territory directly under Beijing’s tutelage.


We rightly took refugees but wrongly accepted the fait accompli. Even today, some senior British judges sit on the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal though the rule of law has been razed all round them. This week, the security minister, Tom Tugendhat, was bold enough to criticise them for this. 


In the case of Iran, particularly during Barack Obama’s US presidency, we were faced with nuclear proliferation. Instead of preventing it, we sought to manage it by a “comprehensive” agreement. 


Perhaps, in all these cases, we longed to be considered warm rather than cold. If so, it has not worked. We fell into the 1970s “détente trap” which dangerously weakened US power against the Soviet Union. 


We tend to restrain friend, not foe. President Joe Biden has the strange habit of supporting an ally – Ukraine, Israel – and then publicly telling it what it must not do, such as attacking Rafah or firing US-made missiles into Russia. “Red lines” are normally drawn to deter enemies: Biden employs them to deter friends. No wonder that, in Taiwan, mainland Chinese propaganda has a special phrase for the thought that America won’t, whatever it says, defend the place. 


Of all the current threats to world peace, the case of Taiwan seems the most remote from British concerns. Some in the United States compound the danger by arguing that the West should divide its responsibilities, with America concentrating on China, leaving Ukraine and even the Middle East to Europe. 


Surely the key to these problems is to connect them. This week, I heard the US sinologist Matt Pottinger speak at Policy Exchange in London. A former US Marine, he became deputy national security adviser to Donald Trump and somehow stayed the course.

 

In his new book The Boiling Moat (it is ancient Chinese advice to fortify one’s border cities with “metal ramparts and boiling moats”), Pottinger points out that Xi explicitly links Russia’s aggression with China’s opportunity, assisted by a “weak” America and a “chaotic” Europe. 


Xi, he argues, sees himself as the architect of a new order. As the Chinese leader departed Moscow after visiting Putin last year, he was captured on video telling his Russian counterpart: “Right now there are changes, the like of which we haven’t seen for 100 years, and we are the ones driving those changes together.” Xi sees world conquest as destiny. 


The only remedies against this are the severe deterrents of overwhelming force and unbearable economic cost. The hard economic facts – hard, it must be emphasised, for both sides – are that 50 per cent of global maritime trade crosses the 100-mile strait between mainland China and Taiwan, so the world economy crashes if China attacks. The key US/Japanese military aim is to make it so difficult for Chinese forces to reach Taiwan’s beaches at all that they won’t dare try. 


But the biggest point for the West to grasp is that we have moved fast into a world situation that leads to war. Until we understand that, we cannot prevent it.



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