Why a Syrian perspective of the brewing US-China tensions matters

A recent book by a father-son duo provides an important counter to western viewpoints about a rising Beijing

A man reads a newspaper headline reporting on Chinese People's Liberation Army conducting military exercises, at a stand in Beijing last month. AP Photo
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US President Joe Biden recently made his most explicit declaration about American support for Taiwan in the event that China attempted to forcibly reclaim the island. When asked if US armed forces would rush to Taiwan’s defence, he replied “yes”. It was a startling answer given that the US’s long-standing policy was one of “strategic ambiguity”, whereby it provided the island with arms but left it open as to whether American soldiers would fight on its behalf.

Some will welcome this as Mr Biden championing a plucky little democracy. But try looking at it from Beijing’s perspective. China views Taiwan as a renegade province, and as Mr Biden also maintained that he stood by the US’s “One China” policy, which “acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China”, he was not advocating for independence. Neither is US support for Taiwan based on the fact that it is a democracy. America took the island’s side when it was an authoritarian state for decades because it was non-communist.

So Mr Biden is prepared to risk a catastrophic conflagration for an island he has no treaty obligation to defend, all to stop it being ruled by the Chinese Communist Party. Given that he tacitly concedes that Taiwan is still part of China, whose CCP leadership is internationally recognised, Beijing may well feel entitled to ask: who is the aggressor here?

The western failure to try to understand – not necessarily agree with – China’s point of view is at the heart of an intriguing new book. ChinaPhobia – A Wasted Opportunity, by Karim Alwadi and Mohammad Kheir Alwadi, looks at what, it is easy to forget, is a fairly recent phenomenon. It was only in 2015, after all, that the then British prime minister David Cameron described UK-China relations as being in a “golden era”.

Both sides frequently misunderstand each other. But the demonisation is one-sided

Since then Nato has declared China a strategic priority for the first time, saying the country challenges the alliance’s “interests, security and values”. Mr Biden has been trying to create an “alliance of democracies”, which many view as an anti-China bloc. And the breathlessly hawkish new UK Prime Minister, Liz Truss, is reported to be considering labelling China a “threat” to national security.

The book’s two authors are father and son. The elder Mr Alwadi is a former Syrian ambassador to China, while the younger was educated and still lives in China, where he holds academic positions and has a Chinese wife. This gives them a perspective less heard, and a valuable one, as they are not in thrall to what they call the American insistence that “their beliefs and principles … are inalienable rights for all the peoples of the world”. They acknowledge that there are other value systems, and that China’s has millennia-old roots.

They are sympathetic to the new confidence apparent in China in the 21st century, reflecting the huge strides it had made economically, lifting 800 million people out of poverty, and culminating, as one former leader tells the authors, “when the American leadership resorted to asking our assistance to overcome the difficulties of the financial crisis that afflicted America in 2007".

China under President Xi Jinping no longer felt the need to “hide your strength and bide your time”, as the former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping counselled. Beijing’s comparative assertiveness over, for instance, its claims in the South China Sea, led to pushback and the firm conviction in Washington, according to the authors, that China wanted to take the mantle of global leadership from the US. Not so, they say, arguing that China has neither the capacity nor the desire to take on such a role. What most Chinese want, they write, in a future when their economy overshadows that of the US, is for the China-US relationship to be “characterised by equality”.

Some may think that naive, but the authors’ case that if China has become a US adversary, it is “an adversary that insists on the path of peaceful development and peaceful advancement”, is backed by the facts. As they write: “China is the only major power that had no war in the last 40 years … while rejecting the policy of alliances, axes and global military confrontations.”

Taiwanese Air Force personnel perform combat readiness missions inside the air base in Hualien, Taiwan, last month. EPA

No one has been able to substantiate the claim that Beijing is trying to force its governance model on other countries. No sovereign nation fears invasion by the People’s Liberation Army. No country has had predatory loans thrust upon them by the Belt and Road Initiative; in fact, many have benefitted from the subsequent infrastructure projects. Mr Alwadi senior even argues that due to intense competition among Chinese companies for BRI contracts, profits on such projects have fallen from about 30 per cent to less than 10 per cent.

Yet in its own neighbourhood, China faces the US deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system in South Korea; Japan is moving to a more outward-facing defence policy and is due to increase spending significantly; and Australia, the UK and the US announced a new trilateral security pact, Aukus, last year. Against whom could all these enhanced capabilities be used, one wonders?

America’s trade war, say the authors, is also seen as unfairly targeting China in a manner reminiscent of the 19th-century Opium Wars, with the goal of both being “to prevent China from catching up with global industrial revolutions”.

If everything China does is seen through the lens of suspicion by the West, the authors concede that the country is not good at projecting soft power, and that clarity about its objectives is often missing. Both sides frequently misunderstand each other. But the demonisation is one-sided. US hawks disappointed that China’s economic liberalisation was not followed by political liberalisation need to get over themselves; that is not going to happen. That does not mean that the peaceful rise of a country that has never sought global dominion should be feared. That, as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in 2019, would be “a strategic miscalculation and reflects a lack of self-confidence … Neither of our two countries can replace the other.”

The Alwadis have particular reasons for wishing to avoid conflict between the two powers. “As Syrians, we have been living through the devastating costs of war firsthand,” the father writes. “That is why we hope the US and China can avoid escalating their current tensions, and respect can replace growing ChinaPhobia.” Amen to that.

Published: September 20, 2022, 2:35 PM