How we talk about China — and why it matters

The West still hasn't come to a consensus on how to talk about China. Friendly trading partner? Aggressive economic rival? Geopolitical adversary? The confusion over terms matters, because the words countries use to describe China indicate how they intend to approach the burgeoning superpower going forward.

Reports of human rights violations are pushing trading countries like Canada into a corner

A child walks past a large screen showing Chinese President Xi Jinping near a carpark in Kashgar, western China's Xinjiang region, on Dec. 3, 2018. Across the Xinjiang region, a growing number of internment camps have been built, where by some estimates 1 million Muslims have been detained, forced to give up their language and their religion and subjected to political indoctrination. (The Associated Press)

In both war and diplomacy, language matters.

And if one thing was evident from the flood of words coming out of the Halifax International Security Forum last weekend, it's that Western democracies, despite their vows to uphold human rights, have no common language to define their view of — and relationship with — China.

The world is rapidly approaching a crossroads with Beijing, a point where nations will have to decide whether to treat the burgeoning superpower as a trading partner, a rival — or an active threat.

Secret Chinese documents were released to media outlets recently which show how the Muslim minority Uighur population is being locked up in mass detention camps and subjected to "systematic brainwashing." Beijing's violent response to pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong revived grim memories of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

So is China a competitor or an adversary?

'Naive' about China's motives

The answer to that question seems to depend on which country's leaders are answering it — how heavily Beijing has invested in their nations' markets, how badly their businesses want access to that vast Chinese market.

"For many years, folks were naive about Chinese motivations," U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien told journalists during an on-the-record briefing in Halifax over the weekend.

"In the past, the relationship with China was driven solely by trade, driven solely by economics."

U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien, left, shakes hands with China's Premier Li Keqiang during a bilateral meeting in Bangkok Nov. 4, 2019, on the sidelines of the 35th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit. (Romeo Gacad/The Associated Press)

O'Brien describes China, rather antiseptically, as a "near-peer competitor," not as an adversary. Still, there were points during the briefing when O'Brien's language became decidedly adversarial — even dystopian — as he described the high-tech incarceration and forced re-education of as many as one million Uighurs.

In the context of the dispute over allowing Chinese telecom giant Huawei into Western 5G wireless systems, O'Brien asked whether Western Europe would have allowed the Soviet Union into their countries to build railroads at the height of the Cold War.

A new Cold War?

On the record, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan also was not prepared to describe China as an adversary — but he was decidedly mushy when asked how we should describe it.

The confusion on display in Halifax over the question of whether the West has arrived at the threshold of a new Cold War was widespread.

U.S. Admiral Phillip Davidson, the commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, would not describe the current moment as "a new Cold War" but warned that the West needs to be prepared to continually "call out" China when it crosses internationally accepted lines.

In this Tuesday, July 7, 2009, file photo, a Han Chinese man carries a spiked steel bar while using his cell phone to take photos as he joins a mob of Han Chinese men attacking Uighur properties in the aftermath of attacks by the Uighurs in Urumqi, western China's Xinjiang province. (Ng Han Guan/The Associated Press)

Many say some of those lines have been crossed already — through the arbitrary detention of the Uighurs (which China attempts to justify with the claim that it's fighting Islamic extremism) and through its program of constructing artificial islands in the South China Sea, which has been condemned by an international tribunal at the Hague.

So, again ... rival or adversary?

'Feeding ... a monster'

Lady Pauline Neville-Jones, a former top British diplomat and adviser to ex-U.K. prime minister David Cameron, said China has signalled it intends to become an "unequalled" high-tech nation. Beijing has said it's prepared to pour real money into achieving that goal — with Western nations supplying the world-class post secondary institutions that are training the next generation of Chinese engineers.

"We are feeding something that could be a monster," she told the Halifax forum.

"So what do we do about it? As long as we pursue our relations with China, largely separately on the basis of short-term national interest, I think we are giving away the game."

It took Western allies several years to come with up a comprehensive Cold War strategy following the Second World War, she pointed out.

The rapid rise of China as a trading powerhouse and high-tech nation has mystified U.S. lawmakers like Senator Jim Risch, head of the Senate foreign relations committee, who said it has happened largely "under the radar" over the last two decades.

"You have to ask yourself, how did this happen?" said Risch, noting China's restrictive trade practices and well-documented pursuit of industrial espionage and intellectual property theft were key instruments driving its ascent.

The Halifax forum has embarked on what it is calling a "China Initiative", with an aim of developing a coherent, comprehensive strategy for Western governments.

Perhaps the process will help those governments find words to describe their relationship with China. Clarity, said Risch, cannot come soon enough.

"If we don't get this right, it's going to be a long 21st century," he said.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.


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