How should the West deal with countries like China, Russia and Saudi Arabia?

How should the West deal with countries like China, Russia and Saudi Arabia?

by Jim Sillars
article from Wednesday 31, March, 2021

CONSIDER THESE QUOTES on the questions of formulating foreign policy:

“There are no permanent friends or enemies, but permanent interests”

Lord Palmerston Prime Minister of the 19th century British superpower

“America has no permanent friends or enemies only interests”

Henry Kissinger Secretary of State of the 20th century US superpower

THERE ARE GREAT POWERS, but no single superpower in the world today. Moreover, rising powers, especially in Asia, are not content with a Western-built  international order they had no say in creating. Navigating foreign and trade policy in these new political waters will not be easy. Realism will be at a premium. 

Individuals can embrace altruism, and take a conscience-clear stand on ethical principles. Governments are different. Unlike individuals, and pressure groups, there are real time and long term consequences for them to wrestle with. 

On a lower scale are companies like HSBC, H&M, and Hugo Boss whose constituents are customers, people who  can exert altruistic pressures, which if bent to, can, as proved in the case of the latter two, come at a real cost  in one of their target markets – in this case China.   

There are those on the Left who believe, as I did in my political youth, it is possible for the UK to have an ethical foreign policy. For that, two things are necessary: all other countries share our ethical values, or the ones who deeply offend us carry no cost for us in cutting off all meaningful contact. Our principles and values are not, however, universally endorsed; and those who offend are not easily shunned without economic and political cost.  A few examples show the dilemmas that now confront the governments of Western democratic states. 

What is Joe Biden and our government to do about Saudi Arabia, ruled by Mohamed Bin Salman, the Crown Prince, Xi Jinping’s China and Putin’s Russia?  That same question faced Churchill and Roosevelt about Stalin in 1943. All  three have at their core agonising choices based on state interests that, from time to time, democratic leaders cannot escape from.    

The MBS question comes from the murder of one man – Khashoggi; for Churchill and Roosevelt it was the execution of 14,500  Polish Officers; with China the gross abuse of millions of Uighurs, Russia its penchant for poisonous assassinations.  How far will Western governments, with high principles and values, and abhorrence of criminal behaviour by others, go in denouncing them openly, cut diplomatic relations, and cease all commercial contacts? The first action is easy, and the cost may be light, but the problems lie with the other two.  

When he was but a candidate, Joe Biden said that MBS would pay a price for his principal role in killing Khashoggi.  Now President, Biden has partly fulfilled that threat by declassifying the CIA report that Donald Trump kept hidden. The CIA,  deeply embedded in Saudi Arabia,  has no doubt that MBS ordered the killing.   

After Israel, Saudi Araba is America’s key strategic partner in the  Middle East. It buys huge amounts of US armaments (jobs in the US).  How can President Biden make MBS personally pay a price for being a murderer?  Cut off the ability of over seventy of his top aides to enter the USA? Done that. But that cut-off does not apply to MBS. What else can the Biden administration do when America’s state interests are entwined with those of MBS’s Saudi Arabia?  

The answer is take refuge in words which can have any meaning you wish to give them. The President’s Secretary of State when asked specifically on MBS said, “we are recalibrating our relations with Saudi Arabia.”  The planned murder of Khashoggi, ordered by MBS was wicked – trap, execute, decapitate, butcher the body, dispose in an oven.  But US state interests cannot avoid doing business with him. 

The same state interest fell upon Churchill and Roosevelt when the German army unearthed the mass grave of over 14,500 Polish officers executed by the NKVD in Katyn forest, after the USSR took them prisoner in 1939, when the  Molotov-Ribbentrop pact gave a large chunk of Poland to the Soviets.  The Polish Government in exile, in London, knew Stalin’s men were the killers.  Stalin lied, said the Germans did it, and denounced the Polish Government. Churchill and Roosevelt knew Stalin was a liar. 

In 1943, a reorganised German army had 168 divisions (3.1m men) and 3,000 tanks in Soviet territory. It was a crucial Western strategic interest for the Russians to keep them all fighting there, and not reinforce the 44 divisions and 860 tanks manning the Nazi’s Atlantic wall, where even half their presence would render a successful 1944 D-day nigh on impossible.  What were Churchill and Roosevelt to do about Stalin’s lie? 

Silence was chosen.  When Polish leader Sikorski presented Churchill with the evidence. His response  was: “if they are dead nothing you can do will bring them back.” (p480 Vol, IV The Second World War, W.S. Churchill). 

Maisky the Soviet Ambassador visited Churchill to “argue the falsity” of the German and Polish accusation. Churchill records on p681:  “I had heard a lot about it from various sources, but I did not attempt to discuss the facts.  ‘We have got to beat Hitler’ I said, and this is no time for quarrels and charges.’” The lend-lease material continued to flow to Russia, and we in Britain continued to call Stalin Uncle Joe. Condemn Churchill  and FDR? They had no choice. 

Today, Xi’s Chinese Communist Party (as opposed to Mao’s) is not in the same murderous league as the Nazis, but their treatment of the Uighers places them in the same legal class of genocide.  

The United Nations definition of genocide not only includes the obvious, the killing of members of a group, but also  “any acts intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national ethnic, racial or religious group as such;”  and “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the groups;” and “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its destruction in whole or in part.”

Not much wriggle room there in Biden’s and Johnson’s assessment of China’s conduct in Xinjiang, with voices in Congress and Parliament calling for punitive action against a genocidal regime. But then, Biden and Johnson, and all other Western leaders, have unavoidable responsibility for actions that bring consequences. And that is no small matter when dealing with China. 

It is the dominant economic, political and military force in Asia, and a world trade superpower. The CCP is much more sophisticated than was the Soviet party in understanding, and dealing with, the West. It has delivered vastly improved living standards to its people, and has legitimacy in the eyes of most of them. Shortly it will reinforce public support by celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the CCP, billed as the great liberator from a century of humiliation. The party that made China stand up in the world, and made the world take notice. 

The CCP’s China is a major supplier of manufactured goods to the West, and a growing market for return trade, which makes it impossible to cut off diplomatic and trade relations. It has financial muscle to flex in the world.  To it, US farmers export 40m tons Soya Beans and 1.9m tons Corn.   When China issued a US$6bn sovereign bond aimed at US investors, it was oversubscribed to the tune of $28bn. A New Zealand paper headlined “Forget Politics” reported foreign capital is pouring into China at record rates as investors ignore geopolitical issues.  In 2020 UK investors were reported as “set to go on an investment bonanza” in China: pumping £26bn into its economy in 2020, and “set to quadruple over the next five years.”

The EU is no different. The reason advanced for its recent investment agreement is because it ‘Needs the economic growth that exists in a country like China.’ Germany saw its trade with the US fall by 6.2 per cent, - 6 per cent  with other EU states, but +3.1 per cent with China. With whom it has a 22.2bn euros trade surplus. 

A fig leaf was employed in  the agreement:  Beijing  committed to progress towards adopting international conventions on forced labour;  both signatories  seemingly oblivious to, or willing to ignore,  that such a commitment confirms what is happening in Xinjiang. 

There is no cost for individuals and human rights groups to angrily denounce  Western  leaders who continue to consort with Xi Jinping, and MBS, and mock their efforts to hide behind meaningless words and phrases. But they don’t have to make decisions the consequences of which are workers made unemployed, and great industries destroyed. We in the West do not live in totalitarian states. Our leaders need to get elected, and re-elected. What chance for Joe Biden or his like next time if he beggars his country’s farmers?  Or what of Boris’s plan for the north of England, if he shut down the BAE Systems factory in Warton, which supplies weapons to Saudi, and placed highly skilled men on the dole? 

We in devolved Scotland are in a happy position at present, able to condemn the UK government for “doing nothing” to act against China’s disgraceful conduct. The House of Lords tried, in the new Trade Bill, to create a situation in which pressure groups could haul the government before a court when and if it signs a deal with an obnoxious human rights abusing regime. If they had succeeded,  a Judge could pray in aid all our ethical values, and our repugnance at trading with monsters, but then he would not be the person who closed the gates of factories.

The CCP and MBS are impervious to hard power coming from the West. That leaves a very long haul on soft power – consistent criticism, rejecting Chinese money aimed at our universities, giving asylum and platforms to dissidents who need to flee, getting books and literature from the West in there, finding ways to overcome the “wall” erected against Western based social media, demonstrations at G7, G8 and G20 meetings.  Tame stuff compared to the hard power of sanctions that hurt, or seeking China’s expulsion from international trade bodies. In fact you only need to refer to that, to realise it cannot happen. 

So, why do I raise this subject of what do we do with the tyrants, when I can provide no easy answer, and find myself in the same place as Biden, Johnson and Merkel to mention only a few.  

Because we should not under-rate the importance of soft power over time, nor ignore the Achilles heel of both China’s communist regime and that of MBS.  They have a weakness not yet fully developed, but will be there in the years ahead – a growing middle class.  Here I depart from my Marxist colleagues on the Left. They see the proletariat as the class that matters, whereas I see the middle class as the main danger to any government. 

The middle class stand above the other social classes, with only a small upper and aristocratic duo above them. But they do not have the kind of permanent security that comes with great inherited wealth. At the heart of the middle class is an insecurity – if the system which sustains them is damaged, or does not work, or worse, destroyed, they are gone. 

Right now in  China the  growing middle classes are not discontented. They enjoy an improving life style, aspire with a sense of hope to enjoy wealth, travel the world, send their children to good foreign universities, and bask in the “world power” reputation of their country.  To continue along that path, given China’s not so recent history, demands stability above any other matters.  

But what if the CCP finds, in the future, that it is not delivering what that growing middle class needs?  What if, as that middle class grows in numbers, it starts to value speaking its mind on what might endanger its expected standard of living?  It is into that middle class we should be aiming our soft power of ideas about the rule of law, freedom of expression, and freedom of political choice. A long term project – but it is the only one we have, and the only one that will work with China. 

To some  extent, the same is true of Saudi Arabia where middle class pressures have been recognised with the small but significant opening up of civil society. MBS is for all purposes a dictator, but the greatest fear of dictators is of the people. We need to keep punting the soft power into Saudi. It is likely to have results sooner than in China. 

But we can all, individuals and Western governments, make our ethical values known and act directly upon when it comes to Putin’s Russia, because there is a low economic and trade cost to most of our countries, with the exception of Germany and the Nord2 gas pipeline.  But even there we in the UK and USA are careful, and maintain diplomatic relations with our fellow UN security council member, armed with nuclear weapons. 

But to handle Russia we should separate the people from the regime in our considerations, even if, as is probably true, they support Putin. As the past Russian Counsel General pointed out, as a democracy Russia was only born in 1991. How the Russian people emerging from centuries of Tsar absolutism, and  over 70 years of Stalinism, are expected to make the transition to a full, value-driven, liberal democracy in only 30 years, is to expect too much. How long did it take us in Britain? 

If we are to aid the Russian people develop democratic principles, it will only be with understanding their history, what are their security concerns that allow the Putinists to capture them, and constantly meeting and listening as well as talking with them. There is no short cut available. 

The world that framed most of us, the Cold War, is no more. There is no wide international buy-in to the US world order constructed at Bretton Woods in 1944. Rising powers in the Indo-Pacific region have their own ideas, their own state interests, as indeed we continue to have. 

We who have ruled so long, might not like it, but that is the new world we live in, and the world we shall all have to manage. 

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Jim Sillars twice served in the House of Common: as MP for South Ayrshire from 1970-79 (Labour Party until 1976 and then founding Scottish Labour Party); and Glasgow Govan in 1988-92 for the SNP. He was Deputy Leader of the SNP 1991-92 and remains a prolific contributor to national and international affairs.

Photo of Prime Minister Theresa May greeting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on the steps of number 10 Downing Street 2018 by Cubankite from Shutterstock.

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