The New Opium War

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There are episodes in British history that we’d all rather forget. The two great nineteenth century assaults on Chinese sovereignty are on that list. Dubbed the Opium Wars, their purpose was to open China up to foreign trade – especially with the British and especially for opium imports from British India.

The First Opium War (1839-42) went well for the British – they got Hong Kong for example – so, flushed with the success of the Crimean War, they went back for seconds in 1856.

Nowadays we are appalled at the idea of a powerful state forcing a weaker one to allow it free rein to lure people into lives of wretched addiction, but at that time it was just a matter of free trade. And foreigners didn’t count for much anyway.

I’m struck by (and stroppy about) a modern parallel. An Australian casino company called Crown has built big glittery casinos in Macau and Australia, and at the centre of its business model is the luring of rich Chinese to its tables. They are variously called ‘whales’ and ‘VIPs’. Gambling in mainland China is illegal, as is soliciting custom on behalf of gambling enterprises. So Crown operates behind a façade:

“Selling gambling?! Perish the thought! We’re just selling nice holidays at luxurious resorts whose many attractions happen to include a little casino or two.”

The leaders of the Chinese Communist Party are neither stupid nor infinitely patient. They know exactly what’s going on, including the use of offshore casinos by corrupt officials and businesspeople to launder dirty money. They fired warning shots which included the rounding up of some smaller fry from South Korea – a device known in China as ‘killing the chicken in front of the monkey’ – and then decided they’d had enough. A bunch of Crown employees, Chinese and Australian, were arrested.

Good on you, Xi Jinping, I say. I still disapprove of your lawless actions in the South China Sea and your suppression of freedom of expression in Hong Kong and on the mainland, but you can hammer Crown all you like.

Trump, Tsai and Xi

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Why must we always be the ones to back down and compromise our principles? By ‘we’, by the way, I mean The Liberal Democratic West (LDW for short, not to be confused with LBW).

Taiwan is a country with its own government, socio-politico-economic system, policies and values. It suits many people to maintain the fiction that it’s a renegade province of the People’s Republic of China that will one day be reincorporated into the mainland Chinese polity, but for all practical purposes and for the foreseeable future it is a separate state.

Moreover, the so-called People’s Republic of China under Xi Jinping is going out of its way to behave badly. Whether it’s denying political rights in Hong Kong, flouting international law in the South China Sea, engaging in industrial espionage or dumping dodgy steel products on world markets, China is donning the clothes of a Rogue State.

And why wouldn’t it? It has observed that the LDW will always back down rather that risk a fight – unless its opponent is orders of magnitude weaker. Israel, Russia and Saudi Arabia have got away with murder, so why not China?

That’s why I applaud Donald Trump’s decision to talk to President Tsai of Taiwan (both pictured below, courtesy of AP). Let journalists and political advisors cringe and mouth the doctrine of appeasement. I say, “Enough! What’s the point of spending 4% of your GDP to build and maintain the most powerful military machine in the history of mankind if you always back off rather than risk hurting a few feelings?!”

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Don’t get me wrong: On almost every issue I am at odds with both Donald Trump and John Bolton (tipped to become his Secretary of State), and I have no appetite for a Third World War. But in this one instance the Donald got it right and John’s endorsement was spot-on. We tried being nice to China and look where it got us. It’s time to try something different.

If Xi Jinping doesn’t like it, let him rant and act offended and threaten to cut off the supply of Barbie dolls.