The claws of the panda

‘Russia successfully meddles in Western politics, but I now worry more about China’

Russia is merely the acute problem; China is the chronic one. That mantra is often heard in Whitehall. Another version is that Russia is yesterday’s problem, whereas China is tomorrow’s.

Either way, the upshot is the same. Vladimir Putin’s shrivelled realm lacks the clout to seriously harm our interests. The big question is whether China will shape and dominate the world. On that issue, we can still engage the attention of the United States, and preserve the only relationship that keeps this country in the forefront of global security.

At first sight, the numbers are indeed startling. China is still, just, a poorer country than Russia (in so far as GDP numbers mean anything; Russia scores nearly $11,000 per head, China $8,800). But China’s economy is eight times bigger; it hugely outspends Russia on defence — by nearly $230 billion to $66 billion. Its population is nearly ten times bigger. On infrastructure and diversification of the economy, China leaves Russia in the mud. China’s newly-built high-speed rail network is 18,000 miles.  Russia has only one stretch — between Moscow and St Petersburg — that comes even close to modern standards. And it follows plans made in 1842.

China, indeed, poses a big long-term threat to British interests. It has stolen intellectual property on a prodigious scale. We like the rules-based international order, or what is left of it. China regards coordinated international action as bullying, and plays successful divide-and-rule games to forestall it. Here are some early signs. Our politicians are no longer willing to meet the Dalai Lama. We are scared to show serious interest in Taiwan. We keep quiet about the flagrant breaches of the agreement over Hong Kong, in which China promised to maintain media freedom, the rule of law and political pluralism in the former British colony. All those undertakings are being broken.

On the other hand, China is far away, and Russia is close. British troops in Estonia are on the front line if the Kremlin tries to pull the same stunt in the Baltics as it did in Crimea in 2014. It is Russian warplanes that probe our air space (sometimes carrying out dummy bombing runs); it is Russian vessels that lurk in and under our waters trying to pick up the tell-tale acoustic signatures of the Trident submarines that carry our nuclear deterrent. It was Russian assassins that killed Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, and tried to kill Sergei Skripal and his daughter a year ago. Russia successfully meddles in Western politics.

Britain is now getting to grips with the threat from the Kremlin. On Russia, our national security strategy explicitly puts security ahead of prosperity. In other words, we are prepared to accept economic pain as the price of standing up to Putin (which makes it less likely that he bothers to try inflicting that pain). A new Russia unit in Whitehall pulls together and analyses open and secret information about Russia’s mischief and meddling, at home and abroad. Its conclusions and recommendations are rapidly shared across government. This is a huge change. For most of the years since 1991, the idea that Russia was a threat was termed “crazy Edward Lucas talk” by the pinstriped geniuses who ran our foreign policy then. I took it as a compliment. Now my worries are mainstream.

Hawkish China-watchers in government look enviously at all this. Our economic ties with China are far more important. It is hard to see how this country retains its competitiveness without using Chinese high technology. It is hard to see how we maintain our security if we do so. The China lobby — business, finance, universities and others whose livelihood depends on keeping relations smooth — is far bigger than its pro-Kremlin counterpart.

So, despite having spent most of my life trying to fox and foil the Soviet and now Russian empires, I now worry more about China — “The Claws of the Panda”, to use the title of an excellent new book by John Manthorpe about Chinese influence operations in Canada. I get far crosser about Chinese human rights abuses than Russian ones. The Putin kleptocracy is thuggish. But there is nothing on the scale of the concentration camps in north-western China, with the incarceration of more than a million people in the Gulag of our age. It infuriates me that the Vatican has abandoned the faithful underground church in China and cosies up to the sham bishops approved by the communist authorities.

But the acute/chronic spectrum is the wrong way of framing the problem. Russia and China both exploit, in different ways, the vulnerabilities we have allowed to develop since the end of the (European) Cold War: our greed, our complacency, our gullibility, our slipshod cyber-security, our introversion. Fixing these problems will benefit our defence, regardless of whoever is attacking us now, or may do in future.

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