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Sensemaker: Containing China

Thursday 25 March 2021

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Angela Merkel cancelled plans for Germany to lock down over Easter.
  • Médecins Sans Frontières staff said they witnessed executions of civilian men by Ethiopian troops in Tigray.
  • Virginia became the first southern state to abolish the death penalty. 

Containing China

Blinken ain’t blinkin’. The US secretary of state is proposing the radical step of regrouping the free world around the principle of resisting China. “Beijing’s course of behaviour threatens our collective security and prosperity,” he told Nato yesterday. “It is actively working to undercut the rules of the international system and the values we and our allies share.”

Empty words? Blinken had numbers too: by itself the US accounts for only a quarter of global GDP but with its allies that rises to 60 per cent, and their combined population beats China’s by 450 million. “That’s harder for Beijing to ignore.” 

A row this public and this fundamental between these two superpowers takes geopolitics into uncharted territory.

The background. Biden arrived in the White House aiming to avoid self-defeating trade wars but determined not to be made to look soft on China (as Obama was). The new team is also genuinely vexed by Chinese IP theft and cyber-snooping; genuinely worried about Chinese designs on Hong Kong and Taiwan; and publicly committed to speaking up for the Uyghurs. 

The set-to. First, Blinken sanctioned 24 named Chinese and Hong Kong officials over the crushing of democracy there. The next day he and China’s Wang Yi argued fiercely and off script for an hour in Alaska. On Monday the EU sanctioned four more Chinese officials over their incarceration of a million Uyghurs, and China hit back at once with sanctions on 10 Europeans including the chair of the European Parliament’s China delegation. 

An EU-China market access deal governing trade worth $650 billion has been put on ice.

Why this is difficult. Blinken’s straight talk so far with China reminds the Washington Post’s George Will of Truman’s brusque handling of Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister, in 1945. But China isn’t Upper Volta with rockets. It’s the world’s fastest growing big economy, militarily dominant in east Asia and the western Pacific, poised to invade Taiwan if provoked (and possibly if not provoked), enmeshed in global trade via an immense tangle of supply chains, and strikingly unbothered by offending people. 

Simple containment is not an option, so the US is trying the complicated version: trade and cooperation where possible, increased self-sufficiency and muscular western alliances where necessary, tough talk in public and – one hopes – enough emollience in private to avert World War 3.

Don’t miss our Sensemaker Special on the Uyghurs tomorrow.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Winners and losers
Why buy when you can rent? Adar Poonawalla, CEO of the Serum Institute of India, is paying $69,000 a month (£) to lease a Mayfair mansion from a Polish billionaire. It’s not clear how much time he’ll spend there but you can imagine he has more business than usual in London on account of the AstraZeneca Covid vaccine his company is mass-producing. Meanwhile, 1,500 John Lewis staff are to lose their jobs with the permanent closure of eight more stores (for a total of 16) that have suffered during lockdown.

New things technology, science, engineering

Ink tanks
It turns out working from home means printing at home. Sales of printers are up 51 per cent year on year in dollar terms in the US, and Sensemaker’s favourite tech tester, the WSJ’s Joanna Stern, has tested ten of them. She falls in love with none – the top grade is “most tolerable” – but her most tolerable ink tank printer, which costs more up front than an inkjet but saves hugely on ink prices by using its eponymous tank, is the Brother INKvestment Tank MFCJ995DW, price around £273 when first reviewed by PC magazine. Listed currently on amazon.co.uk as unavailable, maybe this will nudge them to restock.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

North sea “transition”
The UK government will go on issuing oil and gas drilling licenses for the North Sea as long as applicants get through a “climate compatibility checkpoint” that takes into account demand for oil and the supply of renewables. This is yesterday’s story – apologies for the delay – but it sums up the predicament of a government instinctively minded to support the oil and gas sector in a country committed to hosting COP26 and getting to net zero. The oil companies say they want to make the transition to clean energy but need revenue from oil to pay for it. They also say 40,000 jobs are at stake. Kwasi Kwarteng, the energy and business secretary, hopes he’s sending a clear message that Britain backs clean energy. To most people heading for COP26 it’ll be clear as crude. 

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Vaccine autarky 
Yesterday the EU asserted new powers to halt the export of vaccines to countries that already have enough. Today the signs are that member states are loath to use them. The Guardian reports diplomatic sources saying countries like the Netherlands, Ireland, Belgium and Sweden hope the “stick will never be used”. And Germany’s Angela Merkel said a touch wearily it was plain the UK was manufacturing for itself and there was no point waiting for vaccines from the US, so “therefore we rely on what can be produced in Europe”. Matt Hancock, by the way, is quoted in the FT saying categorically that the UK’s “exclusivity deal” with AstraZeneca trumps the EU’s “best efforts” one. The health secretary will need to avoid accusing the EU of being legalistic if he wants to avoid being accused of brazen hypocrisy. 

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Union Jacks
The UK government has said the union flag should heretofore be flown every day on the flagpoles of government buildings in Great Britain, though it will not be required in Northern Ireland. Special permission will be needed to fly an EU flag. “The union flag unites us as a nation,” the culture secretary said. Is it still acceptable to suggest there was a time when one thing that might have united this nation was a consensus that compulsory flag-waving was de trop?

Thanks for reading; please share this around. 

Giles Whittell

Photographs Getty Images

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