The West Doesn’t Know Where It Stands

In response to sanctions leveled by the European Union, the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada against those responsible for human rights violations in Xinjiang, the Chinese government has retaliated with sanctions against Western officials, diplomats and even members of the European Parliament. China has even informally retaliated against some Western companies. Suddenly, old statements by Nike, Inc. and H&M against forced labor mysteriously reappeared on the Chinese internet, that famous “sea of freedom.” Soon after, products from H&M became unavailable on the search engine Alibaba. Wang Yibo, a celebrity sponsored by Nike, announced that he would no longer represent the company because he could not tolerate attacks on his native China.

This retaliation is just one of the many differences between China and the Soviet Union that make one thing abundantly clear: It is neither useful nor sensible to address the West’s tension with China in Cold War terms.

The Soviet Union was an imminent military threat and an exporter of ideology, but it hardly held economic sway over the Western world. Furthermore, unlike China, the Soviet Union’s model was never successful to the point where it was sincerely and freely replicated elsewhere; nor was the West deeply intertwined with its economy.

The situation is now substantially different. China has not been openly proselytizing. Yes, there are those who want to imitate its model, and of course, the Chinese regime appreciates this enthusiasm. But China does not (yet) inspire political parties, coups d’état or revolutions, nor is there a neo-China-communist international organization that openly spreads Beijing’s message and ideology. Despite tensions in the South China Sea, there is no realistic threat of military conflict. Aside from Taiwan, of course. And while that is not strictly speaking an issue with the West, it is understandably an issue for the West.

But there has been an immediate and harsh response to criticism of China or the Chinese regime. Beijing does not lead a bloc of allies; rather, it wants other nations to be dependent on Chinese influence. This is what Chinese diplomacy, economics and technology promote, both in Africa and Asia and in Europe. Aside from being the world’s factory, China has already become the main market for many. In the last quarter, Nike earned more in China ($973 million) than in America (only $970 million). German car producers are expecting a similar shift.

An awareness that the issue with China is completely different from the conflict with the Soviet Union is essential to determine our next moves. But this awareness has not yet become widespread in the West. Donald Trump thought it was all about trade and economics and that it could be resolved without traditional allies. Joe Biden seems to believe that the solution will be found with an alliance of democracies (as if there were enough of them, or new ones every day, in that part of the world). The geopolitical analysts no longer expound a shared view. Every month there are essays, articles and books about the West’s relationship with China and practically every one says different things. That it is necessary to cooperate, or that it is necessary to cut economic dependence, or that the Chinese think in the very short term, or that there will be no mainstream animosity toward China anytime soon, or that global Chinese influence is reduced, or that dependency on China is irreversible, or that it is actually better this way, and so on. There is no consensus or reliable doctrine to follow.

In the days when there were offices, doctors and telephone operators, it was common to call to schedule a consultation and to hear that the doctor was not in. I have a friend who was always unsure whether the receptionist didn’t know where the doctor was, or if it was the doctor who didn’t know where he was. This is more or less the case with the West in relation to China. It does not know where it stands, and doesn’t know how to find out.

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