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Reuters Newsmaker Interview: Tony Blair — Why the West can’t quit China (and shouldn’t)

Tad Simons  Technology Journalist/Thomson Reuters Institute

Tad Simons  Technology Journalist/Thomson Reuters Institute

According to a new report issued by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, if Western nations don’t find ways to engage with China more directly, cooperatively, and competitively, the world runs the risk of slipping into either a “light Cold War” or “great power rivalry” — neither of which the West is very well prepared to fight.

The report, entitled “China’s Role in the World,” also emphasizes the need for a more constructive relationship with China, as well as the importance of strong Western alliances in the face of increased Chinese aggression on multiple fronts. Blair, who chairs his institute and is a former prime minister of the United Kingdom, reiterated those concerns during a Reuters Newsmaker interview with editor-at-large Axel Threlfall late last week.

Why we need China

“The purpose of the report is to say that whatever attitudes are toward China, getting into a [Cold War] situation isn’t really sensible,” Blair said. Though the COVID-19 pandemic has soured public opinion toward China, especially in the U.S., Blair cautioned that, from a policy standpoint, “it’s important to understand that there are things we need a relationship with China for, not the least of which is trying to solve things like global pandemics, climate change, and reviving the world economy.”

Blair’s report warns rather bluntly that this urgent need for more international cooperation comes at a time when Western trust in China’s motives and leadership is at an historic low, conflict with the U.S. is escalating, and coordinated global leadership on anything — the response to COVID-19, combatting climate change, economic revival, technological development, international relations, etc. — is in extremely short supply.

In the Reuters interview, however, Blair was careful to point out that China’s role as a global superpower, and the U.S.’s response to it, cannot be compared to the Soviet Union in the 1980s — largely because China is so much more integral to the world’s economy than the Soviet Union ever was. “We are in a new era,” Blair explained. “China is now a risen power, and it has an enormous position in global supply chains, and in the size of its economy and military.”

Tony Blair

Unfortunately, China’s rise has not happened the way Blair and other world leaders expected, and that divergence has led to conflict. “When people like myself came into power more than 20 years ago, we assumed that as China evolved economically, it would evolve politically in a more democratic and open direction.” That didn’t happen. Instead, Blair explained, “The Chinese Communist Party has tightened its grip internally, and has become much more assertive internationally. The combination of these two factors has resulted not only in much greater power, but power exercised in a way that seems to be in confrontation with Western values and interests.”

Is the West falling behind?

In order to meet power with power, Western nations need a “strategic response,” not just a series of “ad hoc responses” to Chinese activity around the globe, Blair insisted. “You do have to be prepared to confront China where they are acting contrary to the interests and values of the West and international community,” Blair conceded. But, he added, it is equally important for the West to build strong alliances that allow it to compete effectively with China “technologically, economically, and geopolitically.”

For example, one crucial area where the West is falling behind is in technological development. China’s plan to be a global leader in advanced and emerging technologies is well underway, the institute’s report warns. In a chart illustrating the top five countries for advanced technology patents since 2017 (in artificial intelligence, regenerative medicine, autonomous driving, blockchain, cybersecurity, virtual reality, lithium-ion batteries and more), China is number one in every category except one: quantum computing. There, China is a close number two.

COVID-19 & other complications

The global geopolitical climate toward China has of course been complicated by the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic. According to a poll conducted for Blair’s report, almost no one (less than 13%) outside the U.S./China vortex trusts either country to tell the truth about the coronavirus pandemic. Furthermore, a majority of citizens in the U.S. and many European nations blame China for the severity of the pandemic, and see China as “force for bad” in the world.

These views — combined with rising populism, a sudden distaste for global trade, and a general lack of international cooperation in far too many areas — are making it much more difficult for the world to grapple with the pandemic and engineer a sustainable economic recovery, Blair noted.

“What’s absolutely extraordinary is that we haven’t had the degree of international coordination that is obviously necessary [to deal with the pandemic]. We’re getting there on vaccines, but slowly and with difficulty,” he said, adding that scientists and governments are sharing data, but not as openly as they should be. And even if an effective vaccine is developed, “we still don’t have a proper and fair distribution mechanism,” he pointed out. “There will be hell to pay if the rich world gets the vaccine and it isn’t properly distributed to the developing world.”

Why Africa holds the key to the future

Despite the obvious challenges involved, Blair was cautiously optimistic that global progress can still be made on multiple fronts. On climate change, for instance, Blair said he hoped a consensus would develop around the idea of speeding up development in science and technology, because “that’s the only way” to address it, he said.

That, and fixing Africa.

Indeed, Blair’s institute works closely with several African governments, precisely because Blair believes helping Africa is the key to solving problems in the rest of the world. “The most important thing to realize about climate change is that Africa is going to double its population from one billion to two billion people in the next 30 years,” Blair said. “These African nations should and will want to develop. They are going to be building transport links, airports, airlines, power stations” and other types of infrastructure, Blair said. “The future of the planet will depend on their ability to do this sustainably.”

As for the United States and its fractious politics, Blair said he was confident that the United States would eventually re-engage with the world strategically and diplomatically, because “it’s in America’s best interests.”

Pressed to render a verdict on the Trump administration, Blair pivoted like the expert statesman he is. “I realize that there is a movement [in America] toward nationalism, but these things change,” Blair said, adding that whatever one thinks of the Trump administration and its policies, “there is an inherent strength and resilience in America. That strength is not going to disappear.”

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