On Sept. 10, 2001, if you’d asked a random collection of international policy experts to name the biggest challenge to the global order, most of them would have given a one-word answer: China.
In the spring of that year, in the Hainan Island incident, a U.S. military reconnaissance plane in international waters collided with a Chinese fighter jet that was shadowing it. The Chinese pilot died, the American plane crash-landed in Hainan and for more than a week China refused to release the crew. It felt like something out of the Cold War.
It was a reminder to the newly installed George W. Bush administration, and governments across Europe and Asia, that managing the rise of China would be item No. 1 on the foreign-policy agenda for the coming decades.
And then 9/11 happened.
Nearly two decades later, it’s as if the world has awakened from that detour to find itself at its original destination, and much sooner than expected.
A China once rising has now risen – by some measures, it’s already the world’s largest economy. Once a leader in manufacturing cheap, low-skill products, it is now also at the heart of global production chains for high-tech goods, from computers to smartphones. And thanks to huge foreign reserves generated by enormous trade surpluses, China is a massive exporter of capital, making it the most important investor in many parts of the developing world.
It’s why the arrest this month of Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver, and China’s response, feel like a kind of replay of the Hainan incident – but under very different circumstances.
Compared with 2001, today’s China is far more powerful. It is also more than ever at the centre of the global economic and political system. Yet, it doesn’t always follow the rules and norms of that system. And that has created a paradox – the paradox expected by pre-9/11 analysts. China is part of the system. It is also an antagonist.
Though it’s put itself and its products at the centre of the international economy, China also operates with one foot outside of the international order. For example, it’s part of the World Trade Organization and its free-trade rules, from which it benefits. But it takes advantage of the rules more than it follows them.
It’s part of a global co-operative of organizations such as Interpol, the international police agency. But earlier this year, the man it placed at the head of the organization was effectively disappeared by his own government. It was disturbing but not surprising, given that the Communist Party of China runs a totalitarian state, with no rule of law. The state censors the internet and is so fearful of dissent that it is believed to have detained more than one million of its Muslim citizens in political indoctrination camps.
It’s also a government that responded to the arrest of Ms. Meng by kidnapping two Canadians on invented charges.
The case is a reminder of the two big China challenges that Ottawa, and its allies, must grapple with.
The fact that China is part of the international economy and the largely open movement of goods and people is a good thing. It’s better than the Cold War, when the Soviet bloc was a separate economic system, with interactions limited by a literal wall.
However, China has abused the invitation to join the international trading system. The Trump administration is right that China is an unfair trader. The trade relationship has to be realigned. The goal should not be to shut China out. It must be to ensure that China is made fully part of the system and is bound by rules imposed by the rest of the developed world, which together is much wealthier and more powerful than China.
At the same time, there has to be a way to lower non-economic tensions with China – to prevent future incidents such as the arrest of Ms. Meng from escalating. China is not the Soviet Union, but it is the challenger to the established order headed by the United States.
As in the Cold War, Canada is clearly on one side of this dispute – but Canada also has an interest in ensuring that it doesn’t get caught in an unnecessary and foolish escalation of conflict between the superpowers. The Meng case has caused a crisis in Canada-China relations. But the crisis is an opportunity to get Beijing and Washington talking about lowering tensions and avoiding clashes, in areas far more dangerous than trade.