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Can we avoid war with China?

The China Centre lecture on Tuesday 9 March 2021 was delivered by the Rt Hon Sir Oliver Letwin. The central theme of Sir Oliver's lecture was the increasing mistrust and mutual suspicion between the West and China, which he characterised as a ‘real and present danger’ for humanity.

He began by noting widespread Western concern over human rights abuses in China, particularly in relation to the Uighurs and Hong Kong, as well as Western concerns about China’s global intentions. He noted that there was also widespread mistrust of the West in China - partly due to the history of the period from 1750 to 2000, during which China had been reduced to a position of ‘poverty and global irrelevance’, in contrast to the millennia before the ‘Great Divergence’ of the Industrial Revolution, during which China had been at the forefront of the global economy.

He argued that, in recent decades China’s development had advanced ‘by leaps and bounds’, with unprecedented GDP growth, poverty reduction, high resilience to the global financial crisis and the global pandemic, and massive investment in technology, infrastructure and defence. In contrast, since the global financial crisis the economic performance in the West has been ‘sluggish’. He argued that China’s ‘unprecedented performance’ in recent decades had been alarming for the West, especially for the establishment in Washington, which fears that US global hegemony is eroding. Given that China is already the world’s largest economy in PPP terms, and is likely to continue to grow faster than the West, he thought it unlikely that China would decline into ‘an inconsequential status’ and much more likely that ‘the West’s military advantage would not last for long’.

Sir Oliver drew attention to the dangers of the Thucydides Trap: ‘many people believe that a clash of arms is almost inevitable’. He noted potential flashpoints, including the East and South China Seas, the Indian Ocean, the Himalayas and Central Asia. He warned that the New Cold War could become an ‘inexorable process’ and ‘could easily become a Hot War’.

He suggested a path through which to prevent this happening. Alongside the existing international institutions, notably those based on the UN, a new set of ‘multi-polar enterprise institutions’ should be constructed. These should be ‘functional’, run on the basis of expertise not geo-political processes. They should each focus on a specific common problem faced by the whole of humanity, such as climate change, global financial stability, AI and cyber security, global health and management of global resources such as water. He argued that the Kyoto-Paris-Glasgow process on climate change, with a new institutional structure that had been established only loosely under the aegis of the UN, and the use of the new G20 mechanism to coordinate responses of the established and emerging global economic powers to the2008 Financial Crisis were examples of enterprise institutions on which the world could build. He advanced the view that — by gradually building trust through global cooperation on these common challenges — it might be possible over time to arrive at a new paradigm of constructive diplomacy that could enable China and the West to begin to defuse the time bombs currently ticking away.

Sir Oliver's lecture was followed by a Q&A session in which a wide array of questions and issues were raised. These included the importance of language in mutual understanding; the West’s position on the Uighurs in Xinjiang; the relationship between Western business and human rights in China and Hong Kong; opinion polls showing high levels of support among Chinese people for their government; comparison between the human rights record in China and India; the desirability of creating new international institutions rather than improving existing institutions, especially those under the UN; Western suspicion of multilateral institutions established in Asia; how to avoid conflict over Taiwan; and the feasibility of building trust through cooperation to solve common problems when the level of mutual mistrust is so high.

Sir Oliver Letwin holds BA (first class), MA and PhD degrees from Cambridge University, and a Certificate in Corporate Finance from London Business School. He was Procter Fellow at Princeton University, and subsequently Charles and Katherine Darwin Research Fellow at Darwin College, Cambridge.

He was a member of the Prime Minister’s Policy Unit from 1983-6, and subsequently an Assistant Director, Director and then Managing Director of NM Rothschild corporate finance division from 1986-2003.

Sir Oliver was elected to the UK Parliament in 1997 as MP for West Dorset. In Opposition from 1998-2010, he was Shadow Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Shadow Home Secretary, Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, and Chairman of the Conservative Policy Review and of the Conservative Research Department.

In Government from 2010 to 2016, he was an architect of the Coalition and a senior minister for 6 years, serving as Minister for Government Policy and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. He chaired the Home Affairs Committee and a range of other Cabinet Committees, acted as Minister for National Resilience, and was a member of the National Security Council.

In Parliament as a senior backbencher from 2016 to 2019, he played an active role in the Brexit debates, as well as chairing the Letwin Review of housebuilding for the Treasury and MHCLG, the Red Tape Initiative, and the All Party Group on Prescription Drug Dependence. He retired from Parliament in 2019.

Sir Oliver is a Visiting Professor at the Policy Institute, King’s College London, and at the Department of Politics and International Relations at Reading University. He is also Vice President of the Great Britain China Centre, a Senior Fellow of the Legatum Institute, a Senior Adviser to the Faraday Institution and to Teneo, and a member of the Advisory Council of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at Cambridge. He has published widely in academic and popular journals, and is the author of a number of books including: Ethics, Emotion and the Unity of the Self, Privatising the World, The Purpose of Politics, Hearts and Minds, and Apocalypse How?. He is currently working on a major book about the geo-political and geo-economic relationship between East and West.

He has been a privy councillor since 2002, and was knighted in 2016.

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