As his book China Vs America is published, Oliver Letwin explains the influences that drove him to write it...
When did you first become aware of China’s rising influence?
During the years 2010 to 2016, when taking part in continuous discussions at the UK’s National Security Council, it became increasingly clear that the West’s strategies of the late twentieth century were outdated. Whether we liked it or not, geopolitics were being transformed by the rise of China and India and by the uneasy triangle of relationships between them and Russia.
So I launched a series of ministerial visits to China in order to see first-hand what was going on there. The more I visited, the more impressed I became by the huge economic and technological strides that the Chinese were making.
And this wasn’t just an anecdotal impression. It was reinforced by analysis of the facts. The more I studied the data, the more certain I became that, in place of a world led by the US and its European and Japanese allies, we were entering an era of great power rivalry eerily similar to the situation a century earlier when the dominance of the British empire was being challenged by the rise of Germany and America.
What made you want to write a book about it?
When I left government, I was determined to study in more depth the history that had led to this state of affairs, and to get some real insight into the likely future. This research, combined with further visits to China, as well as discussions with colleagues elsewhere in Asia and in the US and continental Europe, made me even more worried than I had been when I was a minister.
It seemed to me that there were two almost equally dangerous tendencies at play in the West: one, an ostrich-like tendency to put heads in the sand and deny that the world was changing; the other, a hawk-like tendency to see the rise of China as a threat which needed to be resisted at all costs, including the cost of a new Cold War or even of a new hot war, which could threaten the welfare of our children and grandchildren.
So I decided to write a book explaining why I was so worried and what I thought we might do to reduce the chances of disaster.
How is the West reacting to China’s rising dominance – and how should it be reacting?
The essential problem is that neither the ostriches nor the hawks have any real strategy for dealing with the situation we face.
If the West tries to pretend that China will never really be a rival to the US this won’t prevent the rivalry occurring. The truth is that no predictions are necessary: China is already, both in economic terms and in terms of power, a rival to the US. And it is a rival with fundamentally different values. We can’t just wish that away.
At the same time, if we react to the rise of China by seeking confrontation we will find that the Chinese respond with confrontation of their own. And mutual confrontation will lead
inevitably to a Cold War – made all the more dangerous by the numerous flashpoints around the world that could all too easily turn a Cold War hot.
I don’t believe that we are likely to solve this huge problem by tackling it head-on. We have to be cleverer and more agile than that. We are never going to agree with the Chinese about the treatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang or the Chinese attitude to Hong Kong.
But I believe we could gradually build some mutual trust, and also help to improve the prospects for the world as a whole, by focusing on issues of common concern – issues that can’t be resolved without cooperation between China and the West. This is what I call ‘enterprise internationalism’.
If, notwithstanding the inevitable rivalry and the clash of values, we can find ways of engaging in joint enterprises – working together to tackle things like climate change, pandemics, food security, energy security and water security – we may gradually acquire sufficient mutual trust to be able to discuss more contentious issues arising in flashpoints like the South and East China Sea, the Himalayas, Bangladesh and central Asia.
What’s one thing you would like people to take away from reading your book?
The one thing I hope people will take away from reading my book is that we are in a new and dangerous world of superpower rivalry and that we have to find some way of managing that if we are to avoid catastrophe for mankind.
China Vs America is out now. Grab your copy from the Biteback website here.