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  • Yeow Poon

A Response to Tony Blair ‘Strength plus Engagement’ Approach to China

In a multipolar world, should the West be strong enough to defend our values or strong enough to live up to our values.

August 2022

The Guardian on 16th July 2022 published a PA Media article[i] on Tony Blair’s delivery of the 58th Ditchley Foundation Annual lecture. The title of his lecture was “After Ukraine, What Lessons Now for Western Leadership?" and his focus was on China[ii].

“The biggest geopolitical change of this century will come from China, not Russia” “We are coming to the end of western political and economic dominance. The world is going to be at least bipolar and possibly multipolar.”

Tony Blair’s diagnosis of the challenge facing the West is essentially correct, as Western imperialistic and hegemonic power over the last 300 years fades.

“It is the first time in modern history that the east can be on equal terms with the west.”

His proposed solution though is questionable. Although he did say that China ought to be respected as a superpower, he perceived China as an existential threat to the West. His preferred approach to China is therefore to utilise a “strength plus engagement” approach.

“China will compete not just for power but against our system, our way of governing and living” “We should increase defence spending and maintain military superiority” “ … to protect our values and way of life in the era of China not rising but risen”

The PA Media article in the Guardian expressed Tony Blair’s sentiment as “… the West needed to be strong enough to defend its systems and values”. There is however one major flaw in Tony Blair’s assertion of strength. In a multipolar world, where the East is “can be on equal terms with the west”, gunboat diplomacy no longer works.

Rather than building up more and more arms which will only result in an arms race and the risk of war, the West should instead build up its strength to live up to up to its values and democratic systems.

Another major flaw is the assumption that China is an existential threat to the West. To claim that superior military strength is needed to protect our values and way of life implies two things. Firstly, China through nefarious means is attempting to turn Western countries into vassal states oppressed by the Communist Party of China. Secondly, China would do so by military means, if necessary. However, compared with Western powers, besides border disputes, China has not invaded any country since 1979.

China is competing very successfully with the West economically and is challenging the West soft power monopoly in global south countries. Like all great powers, there will also be some meddling and jostling for influence in Western capitals (and this is no different from what Western powers do in other countries) but meddling and influence does not equate to cultural and political dominance.

For many decades, Western culture and soft power dominates the world. Partly due to post-colonisation ties and post-World War II multilateral institutions, and partly due to the projection of Western values through print, videos and Hollywood movies. China soft power is just starting, primarily through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China is showing countries in the global south that there is another model of development and, without directly doing so, implying that there are other ways of governing.

The West is not the world, and the non-Western developing world now has sufficient agency to make their own choices. Tony Blair appears to be deluded when he said:

“We have a great opportunity. Developing countries prefer western business ... They admire the western system more than we realise”

Do developing countries really prefer Western business? Not according to a study by the Lowry Institute[iii], which showed that “two-thirds of the world trade more goods with China than with the US”.

In 2001, the year China acceded to the World Trade Organisation, over 80% of countries with data available had a larger volume of trade with America than China. By 2018, that figure was down to a little over 30%.

Europe appears to be holding its own as according to Wikipedia[iv] “ for most economies in the world, their leading export and import trading partner in terms of value is either the European Union or China, and to a certain degree, the United States and Russia”.

Do developing countries really admire the Western system more than we realise? This may be generally true in the past but not so in the present. The Democracy Perception Index (DPI) 2022[v] highlighted that

“While democracy is in decline around the world, the study shows that people still believe in it: 84% say that it is important to have democracy in their country. However, a growing number are disenchanted with the state of democracy, 41% feeling that there is not enough democracy in their country.”

The problem is twofold. Firstly, the Western system of liberal democracy has not delivered fair distribution of wealth in recent decades. According to DPI 2022:

68% of respondents “view economic inequality as the single biggest threat to democracy around the world”.

Secondly, the hubris of the West in believing that its values and systems are superior and should be adopted by or imposed on to other countries.

When John Bolton remarked casually on CNN[vi]“As someone who has helped plan coups d’état — not here but, you know, other places — it takes a lot of work” like it is the most normal thing to do, the West loses credibility. When Western powers assert that the rest of the world must follow international rules set only by themselves or face consequences, they are perceived as post-colonial bullies. Worse, when Western powers ignore their own rules whenever it suits them, they are seen as hypocrites.

To conclude, in a vastly inter-connected world where information (and disinformation) is readily available, it is no longer easy for one country, or even one bloc, to be the dominant global soft power. It is not whether Western or Chinese values and systems are better. Each has developed from its historical and cultural context and should not be imposed on other countries without considering their conditions.

We, in the West, ought to respect the sovereignty of other countries as they choose their own path. Our soft power depends, not on more military expansion, but on living up to our values and ensuring that our liberal democratic system works for the many, and not just for a few elites.

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