A New Cold War with China? A briefing

By Kenny Coyle*

An analysis of the increasing tension between Western countries and the People’s Republic of China (China or PRC). This briefing focuses on “cold war” issues, rather than the broader question of militarization and the danger of a “hot war” in East Asia. Even so, we will see military issues inevitably intertwine with diplomatic, economic and other forms of conflict.


The rise of the People’s Republic of China in the first quarter of the 21st century is virtually unprecedented. Since the Industrial Revolution begun in the 1760s only two nations have held the number one position in the rankings of the major economic powers, first the United Kingdom and then the United States. China will by most estimates overtake the USA sometime in the early 2030s in nominal GDP. Using the more nuanced Power Purchasing Party (PPP) calculation for GDP, China overtook the USA around 2017-18.

China’s rise is not simply about scale, it is also about the speed of its rise. In 2005, China overtook the UK in terms of GDP, a remarkable achievement given that China in 1949 was estimated to be approximately 200 years behind Britain’s development (ie pre-Industrial Revolution). By 2010, China’s GDP was double that of the UK. World Bank figures for 2019 show China’s economy was 5 times larger than the UK.

This swift cumulative growth of the Chinese economy has entirely wrongfooted Western political and media figures, unable to accept that the Chinese path of development – “socialism with Chinese characteristics” – has proven superior in practice to the neoliberal proposals suggested by any number of Western advisers and implemented other developing countries.


The West’s miscalculations on China have been based on several assumptions.

First that China’s reforms and opening up from 1978 represented a turn toward capitalism and a rejection of socialism.

Second that capitalism inevitably creates Western-style democracies.

Third that the Communist Party of China would either be overthrown, as in the Soviet Union, or transform itself into a social-democratic style party as happened to many East European CPs.

Fourth that a “democratic capitalist” China would meekly accept its second-tier status in a Western-led world order.

Each one of these assumptions has shown to be deeply flawed.

Since the Chinese leadership sensibly punctured these Western expectations, China’s progress is instead commonly to various forms of “cheating”, through currency manipulation, statistical falsification, unfair trading policies, bullying of smaller countries, debt traps, dumping, unfair state subsidies, etc.

The obvious response to this view is instead that the West should simply accept that it was wrong. It should take seriously the many public statements of the Chinese party and government that it was intent on building “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”. This has been the openly expressed strategy of the CPC for decades. Yet, for a number of reasons, this is ideologically untenable for Western politicians and media figures to accept and comprehend.


During the anti-Soviet Cold War, technology transfer was one of the battlegrounds. However, then the aim was to prevent the Soviet Union and its allies from acquiring more advanced technology from the West through the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls (CoCom).  Today the opposite is becoming the norm. The West is quarantining its societies and economies from Chinese technology which is at least equivalent to its Western counterparts or even in some sectors superior, eg Huawei (5G). TikTok (consumer AI) and WeChat (communications and mobile payments).

The latter is particularly important as China has now created sophisticated mobile personal finance networks that are independent of the major US controlled credit systems, eg Visa, MasterCard and American Express, limiting these giants’ access to what is now the largest consumer market in the world.

Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, Washington, wrote recently that in the US: “Elected officials and others from both sides of the political aisle have become increasingly concerned in recent years that China will overtake the United States as the world’s technology leader, with dire consequences for America’s prosperity and national security.”

Atkinson concedes that in key areas of the future economy, such as green technology, China is already ahead in energy sectors such as solar photovoltaic, wind, and batteries. (See “The Case for a National Industrial Strategy to Counter China’s Technological Rise”, April 2020)

A recent Guardian article expands on China’s reshaping of the global green energy sector:

“China is by far the largest investor, producer and consumer of renewable energy. One out of every three solar panels and wind turbines in the world are in China. It is also home to nearly half the world’s electric passenger vehicles, 98% of its electric buses and 99% of its electric two-wheelers. The country leads in the production of batteries to power electric vehicles and store renewable energy on power grids. By 2025, its battery facilities will be almost double the capacity of the rest of the world combined.” (What China’s plan for net-zero emissions by 2060 means for the climate, Barbara Finamore, 5 October 2020).

The current trade war is not about targeting an artificially weak currency or the dumping of low-priced goods, nor are they about intellectual property “theft”. They are about blocking Chinese advances in the next phase of the scientific and technological revolution, which threaten US economic hegemony.


The South China Sea has emerged as a potential hotspot. China is portrayed as solely to blame for regional tensions and its territorial claims are dismissed as “Chinese expansionism”. The truth is more complex. Before Western colonization, many indigenous states and empires rose and fall leaving behind competing claims on territories by their “successor states”. This in turn is complicated by the various agreements, claims and disputes between the former Western colonial powers in the South China Sea, namely Britain, Netherlands, Spain and the United States.

In the Philippines, for example, Filipino nationalists and some Muslim separatists, maintain that there is a legitimate claim to the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo, due to Sabah’s previous attachment to the Sultanate of Sulu (incorporated into the Philippines). The single island of Borneo and its maritime waters are therefore open to partially unresolved claims by Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Brunei.

Territorial claims of the People’s Republic of China have generally followed those of the Republic of China (ROC 1911-1949), to which the PRC sees itself as the legitimate successor, along with a number of concessions to Mongolia and Vietnam. Taiwan, which claims to be the continuation of the original ROC, also maintains broadly similar claims without accusations of Taiwanese expansionism. In fact, Taiwan maintains a military outpost on the tiny island of Taiping in the disputed Spratly Islands. This archipelago’s ownership is claimed by Taiwan “ROC”, Vietnam, Philippines and the PRC.

US meddling in the region further complicates matters. The short-term solution is to recognize the status quo, but longer term solutions should be based on peaceful bilateral and multilateral negotiations between the claimants themselves.


The roots of the recent border disputes between India and China date back to British attempts to expand colonial India’s northern borders more than a century ago. Britain used the weakness of China’s Qing dynasty and the turmoil after its overthrow n 1911, to gradually annex territory that had either been under Chinese sovereignty or influence, such as Sikkim and southern Tibet. A British invasion of Tibetan territory (the Younghusband Expedition) in 1903-04 was supposedly to ward off Russian influence. In 1914, the McMahon Line drawn up by a senior British colonial official of the same name, divided British India and Tibetan territories. The Line was never accepted by the Chinese, who were not allowed to be present at the negotiations, and was rejected even by the Dalai Lama until very recently. The Chinese consider the Line of Actual Control to be the result of an Unequal Treaty.


Until a couple of years ago, the issue of the Uyghur ethnic minority in Xinjiang was invisible as far as the Western press and politicians were concerned. The Christian fundamentalist activist Adrian Zenz, is usually the main quoted “expert” on the Uyghur question in Western media. However, as he reads neither Chinese nor Uyghur (he has never been to Xinjiang), it’s clear his research is being led by other forces.  Recent photos of alleged “concentration camp” facilities, issued by the Australian military “think tank” ASPI, but credited to a young unknown Australian postgraduate student have been criticised by Chinese and other observers for their inaccuracies.

There is plenty of room for legitimate criticism of China’s anti-terror laws (Uyghur terrorists groups have a track record of killings) and also its approach to combating what it terms religious extremism, such as forbidding certain forms of dress (the hijab), which it is claimed is a marker for extremism.

However, most of these measures are not directed against traditional Uyghur dress or religious practices (which are mostly Central Asian Sufi in origin), but at the more recent imported influence of Salafist and Wahhabist influences that have come from outside Xinjiang, notably Afghanistan, where Uyghur extremists have trained.

The links between Al-Qaeda, Islamic State and the armed Uyghur groups have been acknowledged by Nato, which has targeted Uyghur military camps on the Afghan side of the Chinese border.

The Uyghur separatists have received little open backing in majority Islamic countries with the exception of Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (particularly Dubai’s media operation Al Jazeera). Turkish leader Erdogan has long provided assistance to Uighur activists

Charges of cultural and demographic “genocide”, (which mirror the claims of Tibetan separatists a decade and a half ago) are likewise dubiously sourced but widely re-broadcast as fact.


“China blamed for Barbados ditching Queen” The Times (23 September 2020)

British media accounts of China have taken on an almost hysterically anti-Chinese tilt over the past few years, picking up virtually any rumour and amplifying it. The results of this campaign are:

1] Stoking a climate of anti-Chinese/Asian racism in Britain.

2] Breaking economic links between Britain and China (eg Huawei ban)

3] British militarisation in East Asia (see “Britain set to confront China with new aircraft carrier”, The Times, 14 July 2020)


There has been a concerted attempt to justify British interference in Hong Kong on the false grounds that Britain is a co-signatory to the Sino-British Declaration of 1984. It is alleged that this declaration provides the UK with some, usually undefined, continuing rights over Hong Kong. In fact, the declaration only covered the transitional process, lasting from the declaration until 1 July 1997, on which day China would regain sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997, after 150 years of British rule. Rather than a signed treaty, the declaration set out both British and Chinese statements on how the handover would be carried out and also (crucially from the Chinese side) what a post-1997 Hong Kong would be like.

The Chinese statements of intent focus essentially on asserting renewed Chinese sovereignty over the recovered territory and establishing “one country two systems”, by which Hong Kong would enjoy considerable but limited autonomy (ie issues of all-Chinese defence and foreign affairs were specifically excluded).

Most importantly the Sino-British Declaration was not designed to give Britain any rights to oversee or monitor Hong Kong after 1 July 1997. Britain clearly recognised full (not limited or shared) Chinese sovereignty over its territory in the new HKSAR, post 1997.

China has not broken the agreements it made in the 1984 declaration.

(For more details see “A faded empire strikes back”, Morning Star https://morningstaronline.co.uk/article/f/faded-empire-strikes-back)


Hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents have a travel document called the British National (Overseas) passport (BNO). An estimated 3 million may be entitled to it. However, the Johnson government has attempted to use this travel document (it does not confer British citizenship or nationality on the holder) as a “fast track to citizenship. Some commentators (eg Simon Tisdall in The Guardian) have floated the idea of a “brain drain”, whereby Hong Kong would haemorrhage its professional and business class.

Until 1983, Hong Kong citizens could settle fairly easily in the UK, depending on their personal situation, using the BNO’s predecessor the British Dependent Territory Citizen passport. The BDTC status was shared by a number of UK controlled territories, such as the Isle of Man, Channel Islands and Hong Kong, with the latter by far the most populous.

However, the Thatcher government introduced a racist Immigration Bill in 1981, which took effect 2 years later. The Bill separated the predominantly white territories from the non-white territories, giving full citizenship to those living in the IoM, Channel Islands, Gibraltar (and only after the Falklands/Malvinas War to Falkands islanders), excluding non-white territories and specifically Hong Kong’s then 2 million plus BDTC passport holders.

The timing was not accidental. Talks about Hong Kong’s future had begun in 1982 and the Thatcher government’s hostility to non-white migrants – she had famously warned of Britain being “swamped” by Asian immigration – was a matter of public record.

Only after 2002, during the Blair years, was the BDTC status converted to effective full citizenship and right of abode. By this time of course, Hong Kong was Chinese and the 1984 declaration had made clear that Britain would not extend BNO rights to Hong Kongers born or applying after 1997.

In a further racist move, the Thatcher government attempted to prevent Portugal from offering full Portuguese passports to the residents of Macau. The Tory government realised that when Portugal joined the then European Community (in 1986), Portugese passport holders could enjoy the right to settle in other EC countries, including the UK.

By contrast in Macau, Hong Kong’s sister Special Administrative Region, its former colonial power Portugal behaved differently. Following the anti-fascist Carnation Revolution of 1974, Portuguese governments were keener to end colonial rule in Macau and the territory was soon designated as a “Chinese territory under temporary Portuguese administration”.

A Sino-Portuguese Declaration was signed in 1987, essentially along the same lines as the 1984 Sino-British Declaration on Hong Kong. However, Portugal offered full Portuguese citizenship to Macau residents born before 1981 and their descendants. Many took advantage of the passport but few were interested in moving to Portugal following the 1999 as the economy boomed.

However, this move set alarm bells ringing in Whitehall in 1985. Portugal was to join the European Union in 1986 and Portuguese passport holders would be entitled to settle elsewhere within the EU.

Tory Home Secretary Douglas Hurd wrote a memorandum in October 1985 expressing his concerns to Cabinet colleagues: “having succeeded in avoiding large scale immigration from Hong Kong as a consequence of the negotiations […] we really should not drift into a position in which the unintended consequence of Portuguese accession is the potential immigration of large numbers from Macau.”


After last year’s violent turmoil, the Chinese central government announced it would extend National Security Legislation to the HKSAR, after 23 years of delays. The HKSAR government had been obliged to adopt NSL according to Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law but this was repeatedly blocked by opposition groups. Instead the central government used Annex III of the Basic Law, which allows for certain categories of national legislation to become HK legislation. The move provoked condemnation in Washington, London and Brussels.

However, the move has to be seen against the attempts by western powers to directly intervene in the HKSAR – through funding and training of political opposition groups – as well as the passing of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019, orchestrated by Marco Rubio and given bipartisan support.
Leading HK opposition figures: Martin Lee, Anson Chan, Dennis Kwok, Nathan Law, Joshua Wong and others openly lobbied in Washington for this legislation to be passed. The crucial section of the Act calls on the United States government to monitor “goods and services transshipped or reexported through Hong Kong in violation of such sanctions to (A) North Korea or Iran; or (B) other countries, regimes, or persons subject to such sanctions for engaging in activities… (ii) that otherwise present a threat to the national security, foreign policy, or economy of the United States”.

Essentially the Trump administration (with the full support of the Democrats) threw down the gauntlet to China, pushing proposals that would in effect turn Hong Kong into a US “treaty port”, subject to “US national security interests” and foreign policy aims but not to China’s national security.
China’s response through its NSL has been to block this assault from outside and also to squeeze the pro-Washington groups inside Hong Kong and cut the umbilical cord between them.

*Kenny Coyle is a progressive writer and commentator resident in China.

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