US PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson had their first G7 face-to-face today (10 June) to discuss competition with China.
Officially, the talks will be about rebuilding transatlantic tourism, and investigate technology and artificial intelligence. Together with other nebulous goals of a ‘build back better’ variety this is being described as a 21st century “Atlantic charter” – a reboot of the ‘special relationship’.
That’s the public pronouncement. But beyond the press statements, it’s about something else. As one Johnson aid confessed to the Financial Times: “It’s not unreasonable to see a read-across to China.”
Much media attention will focus on Northern Ireland, and Biden’s attempt to enlist Johnson into a reconciliation with the EU. But this is not separate from fears about China, and the (still modest) loosening of Western hegemony. There are concerns in Washington that Trumpism and Brexit were among a range of forces damaging the adhesive of the western order, and Britain’s continued friction with the EU over customs in Northern Ireland is symbolic of this recent history of disorder. Such tensions must be overcome, in Washington’s eyes, to successfully face down China and other rivals.
It’s no mistake that technology and artificial intelligence were so high up the list. The UK Conservative party has remained split over whether to install in the UK the products of Chinese tech giant Huawei. The US has lobbied the UK hard to present a common front against the spread of Chinese tech in an century where data will become a major economy and recast social relations and security matters.
Tech is likely to become a major front in the new conflict with China, and will likely predominate over direct military competition. But this does not mean that China’s disturbance of US hegemony in Asia, Africa, the South China Sea and Australasia – and America’s attempts to curb its rise – can’t result it outbreaks of violence.
Talk of a new ‘Cold War’ may have a rhetorical power – the old Cold War was a wasteful and dangerous military-diplomatic stand-off which lasted decades and atrophied democratic and human rights in competing blocs. But there are crucial differences between competition with the Soviet bloc and modern China (which, incidentally, laterally found itself with – or adjacent to – the western powers). China doesn’t pose as an ideological alternative to western capitalism, even if it does present a different model for national development in the peripheries of the global system.
More importantly, the markets of China and the west are deeply intertwined. Unlike the Soviet Union, which was frozen out of the global market for a long time, China has become crucial to the world circulation in consumer goods. Low wages (maintained at low levels by the ban on independent unions and a general repression of democratic rights) mean cheap ‘white goods’ for the west, which have helped maintain living standards after decades of wage repression across Europe and the US. The dirty secret of modern liberal capitalism is that it just wouldn’t function without the Chinese Communist Party and its relentless factory discipline.
A new dimension was added after 2008, when China deployed massive state stimulus to maintain growth as the world system ground to a halt. The world looked on in wonder as China – a country declared the last redoubt of an unworkable socialist system – used its capacity for economic planning and investment in large state enterprises to hold up the world economy like Atlas. China alone had maintained this capacity.
China is important to Scotland’s development, and successive first ministers have courted Chinese business and cultural links. In 2017, Nicola Sturgeon said: “China is an important export market for Scottish products, particularly food and drink, but also including engineering, pharmaceuticals and financial services.”
Almost as important as all that, and with a provable impact on the skyline of Scotland’s cities, “we have increasing numbers of Chinese students choosing to study in Scotland, and 18 of our higher education institutions have academic and research links with their counterparts in China”. High value Chinese students are a major motor of the dubious model of urban development in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Scotland then is also drawn into the contradiction of mutual competition and reliance.
Scotland could do with discernment over international relations. As noted, the influx of cheap goods, invasive tech and foreign ownership has profound social consequences.
But as with bigger players like the US, Scotland will be expected to join the developing policy of hostility to China. This needn’t contradict the flow of students or cheap goods, but points of friction will emerge. When they do, political pressure to join new trade wars, new security and arms races, and the reconstitution of politics with anti-Chinese paranoia (in the vein of the many and various ‘Russiagates’) will be considerable. Will Scottish civil society be strong enough to resist dangerous escalations, waged not in the name of the ordinary citizens of China or Scotland, but in the name of competition for wealth and power?
If not, and the leadership of civic and political life follows the Natofication of recent years, a popular response that reasserts those mass interests will be necessary.