West needs dialogue with China, not a dangerous armed silence – Joyce McMillan

China has a horrific human rights record and displays increasingly aggressive expansionism but a Third World War must be avoided

Wednesday evening and I am in the Playhouse, Edinburgh, watching the UK touring version of the acclaimed and gorgeous-looking 2015 New York Lincoln Center production of the great 1951 musical The King And I, often framed today as a problematic work, which cannot overcome its tendency always to place white western experience centre stage.

Yet composer Richard Rodgers and writer and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein were no fools; and part of the greatness of The King And I as a piece of popular art – one that still brings audiences to their feet today – lies in its willingness to confront the deep human pain that can be caused by a profound and unequal clash of cultures, as it tells the story of young British widow Anna Leonowens, who, in 1862, arrives in Bangkok to become governess to the King of Siam’s many children.

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In Hammerstein’s story, the pain of that encounter finally kills the king, as he tries and fails to square the powerful demands of scientific modernity with the traditional belief-systems that hold his country together; and the King also, at one point, delivers an astonishing musical soliloquy, called It’s A Puzzlement, in which he wrestles with the conflicting value-systems that confront him, as well as with the realpolitik of governing a small independent country in an age of competing empires.

All of which strikes some extraordinary contemporary echoes, in an age when the resurgent power of China has once again put relations between the West and East at the centre of world politics, and in a week when Joe Biden’s US administration announced its new Indo-Pacific cooperation pact. Many commentators seemed to suggest that, like Hammerstein’s King of Siam, most of the countries involved in the pact would hesitate to side decisively with China or the United States, fearing the danger of complete domination by such powerful allies; and President Biden, in launching the deal, flatly denied the existence of any new Cold War that would force such a choice.

Yet in truth, the age of enthusiastic and uncritical globalisation that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall is already over, with the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine only the final blow in a process that was already well underway. And if in the 1990s it made some kind of sense to talk of a generally agreed world order, today that order is not only broken but explicitly challenged, designated by both Russian and Chinese governments, and by many others, as a western construct riddled with hypocrisy and double standards, and one that disrespects other cultures in true colonial style.

The prospects for global peace and cooperation now look grim, in other words; and as this week’s testy Commons exchanges show, the UK like other western countries is struggling to recalibrate its relationship with China, under these new and frightening conditions. Amid such a barrage of negativity, though, it is perhaps worth trying to map a way forward that does not lead directly towards increased global alienation and conflict, however difficult that may currently seem.

In the first place, it is surely essential that western powers find ways, in every international arena, of resisting the suggestion that everything that has been achieved in the recognition and defence of human rights, since founding of the United Nations in 1945, is meaningless, simply because of the frequently poor behaviour of western powers themselves. At this point in history, western countries would certainly do well to show great humility on these issues; but it is still worth insisting that the values themselves are indispensable to any just and peaceful common future, and that those who seek to discredit them do so only to bolster their own power.

Secondly, it seems important to mark out the distinctions between Xi’s China and Putin’s Russia. One is an economically weak nation of around 150 million people, over-dependent on obsolescent fossil fuel wealth, and saddled with a failing leader who is trying to bolster his popularity by attempting to stage a delusional re-run of the Second World War.

The other, by contrast, is a huge economic superpower with a strong grasp on 21st-century technologies, a vast manufacturing base, and a formidable state machine; and its government still appears to inhabit the real world when it comes to issues such as climate change. This is not, of course, to minimise China’s horrific human rights record and increasingly aggressive expansionism. Yet if there is to be any hope of avoiding a superpower conflict that would look very like a Third World War, it seems as though channels of communication with the Chinese government must be kept open; and that diplomacy must be given space to do its work, in seeking to reduce tensions.

Finally, it’s now clear that, with the possible exception of the United States, no country acting alone now has anything like the necessary clout to exert any influence on China; and that the best the UK can do, under such circumstances – and the best a newly independent Scotland could do, for that matter – is to repair relations with our European Union allies to the point where, when that large trading bloc engages in dealings with China, we are also part of that conversation.

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These are frightening times, in other words. Yet if we start where we are, work with the alliances of goodwill that we have, show realism and humility about our historic lack of moral authority on human rights matters, and try to add other voices from beyond Europe when and if they feel able to agree, then at least we can begin to gather economic and political forces strong enough to enter into a dialogue with China, rather than, as Conservative MP Iain Duncan Smith put it this week, simply being ignored, and therefore lapsing into an ever more dangerous armed silence.

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