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How the West Faltered During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Authors: Ziyu He and Huaan Liao*

Not long ago, we were residing in the heart of Western Europe relishing sweet junior spring exchange lives, only to have them cut abruptly short by a sweeping pandemic that obscured the sun shining above outdoor cafes on lazy afternoons. In lieu of weekend getaways, we found ourselves scrambling onto a last-minute transatlantic ride back into the United States, lest a potential presidential order soon shuts its borders to. Unfortunately, our worst fear soon became the reality. On the shuttle ride from the airport terminal, news feeds flooded us with breaking alerts on Trump’s decision to close the border to foreigners coming from the Schengen zone. The entire fiasco was all too real—never could we have expected that so soon after the turmoil our parents experienced in China, this, too, would upend our lives for months to come with no end in sight.

As China wakes from the nightmare, the West, especially the US, struggles to flatten the curve. Though second waves of outbreak occurred sporadically, China has earned a prize it long desires—recognition for its leadership role during a time of crisis. At the same time, the West is faltering with no clear path ahead. After surpassing China in both total confirmed and death cases in the end of March, the US continued on a treacherous trajectory months after the outbreak. Fierce tension between state and federal governments and selfish decisions of the White House against its own allies are sabotaging US reputation even further. Across the Atlantic, UK prime minister Boris Johnson risked his life to testify for the inherent danger of the herd immunity strategy. When Western nations retreated from their previous roles as beacons of hopes during times of crisis, China stepped up its role in global governance, pledging material assistance to countries in need and touting its lockdown strategy. The sharp contrast between China’s success and the West’s failure has led many to question whether the COVID-19 pandemic will prove to be a “Suez Crisis” for the US and possibly the liberal world order.

So what has the West done wrong?

As all initial efforts to contain the virus failed within the first week of local outbreak in Western Europe and the US, serious measures came too late to stop sporadically imported cases from developing into a grave threat to national security. The confidence and calm Western leaders once evinced only became testaments to ignorance, arrogance, and irresponsibility.

Arguments acquitting Western leaders have been made by pointing out their lack of experience dealing with a pandemic as serious as COVID-19, deceptive reassurance from the Chinese authorities, and delay in WHO’s timely instructions. Settling for these excuses, however, signals weakness and resignation from the responsibility as global leaders. Although the lack of experience in handling global health crises can help explain the initial insouciance toward COVID-19, this ill-informed argument is not a total acquaintance, for not only could it have led the fight, it is also equipped with more means than anywhere else in the world. With more established medical infrastructure and the fortune of managing the health crisis not first but second to the outbreak in Asia, havoc in the West could have been assuaged if not averted altogether under rapid and effective policies in place.

Similarly, assigning blame to China and the WHO does Western countries more harm than good. It is no secret that the Chinese government silences dissidents, manipulates statistics, and restricts transparent journalism to protect its legitimacy and defend its rhetoric for audiences everywhere. Feigning astonishment and blaming heavy casualties on the Chinese government is thus either a testimony of the administration’s incompetence to anticipate imminent risks and allocate appropriate resources to combat the crisis domestically and globally or a foolish bet on the goodwill and transparency of Beijing. Neither is good publicity.

Ideological considerations, rather than pragmatic calculations, explain Western democracies’ failure to implement timely responses to the crisis. Though the fear of economic recession and lengthy democratic procedures in formulating a response surely contributed to Western administrations’ reluctance to lockdown economies, indiscriminate aversion of China’s “draconian” authoritarianism played a more important role in postponing stay-at-home guidelines and issuing lockdown orders as last resorts. In January, when Western media and leaders rushed to denounce China’s snap containment policies as extreme measures with no respect for basic human rights, lockdown essentially became a symbol of authoritarianism and a taboo for the Western world in the name of liberty and democracy.

This was made clear to us in February right after the outbreak in Italy. In our Spanish Politics class, the professor led a discussion about the contagion and asked for reactions. Students from different European countries and the US voiced their opinions, mostly denying any possibility that the virus may end the fun of weekend travels and dismissing lockdown as an unreasonable restriction to personal freedoms followed by “I know China did that, but I mean, it’s China…” The only dissenting opinion came from a girl from Taiwan, who lamented on the then already lacking supply of face masks from all pharmacies before most Spanish people even learned the name of the virus. Drumbeats and trumpets celebrating Day of Sant Medir still resounded on the streets of Barcelona as late as early March. Similarly in the US, without timely restrictions from each state, students celebrated the premature end to their semester with COVID-19 parties that were directly responsible for more infections. Racist sentiments against people of Asian descent in the West ironically caught on much more quickly than preventative measures.

Unfortunately, as the centers of the outbreak shifted from Wuhan to Italy and then New York, Western leaders were compelled to contradict their previous stances and issue lockdown orders, halting national economies to a standstill despite reluctance. As extraordinary measures like social distancing, closing of non-essential businesses, and stay-at-home orders became inevitable, Western countries handed the victory to Beijing. Not only was Europe and the US “following” China’s lead on implementing unprecedented restrictive orders to minimize exposure, they have also fallen steps behind due to their initial obstinate dismissal. As China recuperates after a month of “zero increase” while death tolls continue to increase at alarming rates worldwide, few can deny that China is becoming the safest place in the world. While China’s extreme measures are recognized and praised by the WHO as “a new standard of outbreak control,” Western leaders, especially President Trump, are experiencing confidence crises from domestic constituents.

Scientifically, preventing human contact offers the best hope of stopping the spread because COVID-19 can travel in aerosol from asymptomatic patients. Restrictive measures will slow it per the logic of nature, and determination to avoid “authoritarian measures” serves only political motives at the cost of millions. Western policymakers failed to distinguish the concept of lockdown and China’s implementation of it. Scientific measures such as social distancing and lockdown should not carry political color, even when China’s execution violates many basic principles of a just government. When China issued lockdown orders, it ignored the wellbeing of small business and vulnerable individuals, stranding thousands in foreign cities without assistance. The lack of planning and coordination caused multiple scandals during the lockdown: the price of necessities and protective gear skyrocketed; the Hubei Red Cross hoarded medical supplies donated to local hospitals, and high-level officials were exposed expropriating masks from pharmacies and Red Cross warehouses.

Beijing and Wuhan should not be criticized because they resorted to lockdown as a way to control the outbreak but because they disregarded the lives and wellbeing of their own citizens. China implemented restrictive orders through command rather than consensus. As current situations demonstrate, the West could have adopted similar policies much earlier without putting the welfare of millions in jeopardy—what true leadership should have been like, instead of playing an opportunistic game of petty politics. Measures to aid the economy and individuals, including state-funded job retention schemes and appeals to big banks to stop stock buybacks to bail out clients, accompanied lockdown orders in Western administrations’ policy considerations but were not implemented in China. Voices calling attention to the collapse and disappearance of small businesses were censored on Chinese social media platforms for “breaking rules and regulations,” further attesting to the woes of an authoritarian regime. Actions as such made China “authoritarian”, not the lockdown itself.

Though East Asian democracies such as South Korea and Taiwan demonstrated alternative and more efficient paths of outbreak control, ignoring and rejecting the merit of China’s efforts is a dangerous sign of hubris and ignorance. As the West squandered the opportunity to “know its enemy” by learning from China’s success and failure, it effectively conceded victory to China, at least for now.

For the first time, a major setback of Western democracies was not brought by natural causes—the COVID-19 virus—or external enemies—China—but by the very fear and insecurity the West itself possessed. Though strong rhetoric condemning China’s atrocious human rights records and clandestine political maneuvers exudes confidence as the West chants aloud the slogan of freedom and justice, insecurity about China’s increasing economic prowess, political clout, and military capabilities alert Western countries as the rise of populism shifts policy focus from global prestige to domestic prosperity. Facing a rising competitor who aspires to command greater influence and become a rule-maker for the international order, the West has resorted to craven condemnations rather than confident example-setting actions. The COVID-19 crisis could have been a showcase opportunity for the West, especially the US, to consolidate its global leadership status by demonstrating the best practices of outbreak control and providing public goods for the international community. Instead, retreat from global responsibilities and the fear of mimicking a “draconian” lockdown made China the hero and the West the disheartened losers who barely protect itself. As more countries push back against China’s attempt to retell the story of the COVID-19 outbreak and its successful response, the West still has a chance to redress its mistake, though the window of opportunity will not stay open for long.

As competitions between China and the West elevates to a value-clash between efficient authoritarianism and free democracy, the West has repeatedly emphasized the value of personal freedom and autonomy. Protests frequently erupted amidst challenging lockdown orders. The zealous quest for personal freedom has held back a nobler pursuit for justice. Caring for the vulnerable and upholding a fair and just system is what made the West leaders of the world decades ago, and so should its priority be today. Freedom should serve as a building block to that system, never a stumbling rock.

*Huaan (Amber) Liao, from Xi’an, China, studies Global Business with a European Studies Certificate at Georgetown University Walsh School of Foreign Service. She spent a semester abroad at Esade Business School in Barcelona, Spain. She has researched for The Brookings Institution’s China Center.

Ziyu (Harry) He studies Asian Studies with a minor in Political Science at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and is currently on an exchange program at the University of Oxford. He currently works as a research assistant at in the Georgetown Security Studies Department.

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East Asia

The Problem of Uncontrolled Nationalism: The Case of Japan before the WWII

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Authors: Chan Kung and Yu(Tony) Pan*

Throughout the modern history of the world, Japan is undoubtedly an interesting country: it went from the edge of becoming a colony to one of few independent countries in Asia before World War II, and after the Great War, Japan even became a great power. From a broader level, Japan’s success at that time showed that Asians were not inherently inferior to Westerners. Unfortunately, Japan which was supposed to be the leader of Asia to a bright future, chose the path fascism and imperialism. Eventually, Japan became the source of the Pacific War.

It is undeniable that from the Meiji Restoration until the early Showa period (the end of World War II), Japan adapted an expansionary policy, which brought deep suffering to its neighboring countries and ultimately dragged itself into the abyss of destruction. When World War II ended, nearly 70 years of development achievements were utterly wiped out by the war.

In this context, an important question we need to ponder is: What led Japan to embark on an expansionary and self-destructive path? At what point in time did Japan’s policymakers start to lose its mind? What can future generations of nations learn from Japan’s tragic experience to prevent the same fate from happening again? As a country that has been entangled with Japan for generations and has a complicated relationship with Japan, these issues are of even greater relevance to Chinese researchers today.

Fortunately, there is actually a fair amount of scholarly research on the subject, and there exist four main explanations. The first is the “international structure theory” most commonly used by IR scholars (especially the realists), and the second, more common among Western scholars, is the “weak democratic government theory. The third is the “Pan-Asianism,” which focuses on the constructivist perspective. Finally, there is the political economy explanation of expansionary policies.

At the first glance, it seems that each of these explanations has its own rationale. Of the four, the view that the navy and the military were increasingly extreme in their struggle for policy dominance is the most possible explanation. However, it seems that each of the four existing explanations can, in fact, be incorporated into a new one, namely, that Japan’s self-destructive expansionary policies prior to World War II were the material manifestation of an uncontrolled nationalism. More specifically, these four explanations answer why the Showa government was unable to control the nationalist forces in the country. On the other hand, however, the question of whether nationalism would necessarily expand without outside interference and lead to expansionist policies was left unexplained.

Because of the natural characteristics of nationalism, it seems to us that there is a natural tendency for nationalism to expand in the course of its development. The main reasons for this phenomenon are not complicated. First of all, nationalism is a group ideology, which means that nationalists have a common goal at the macro level, but the boundaries of national interest are not consistently defined by different individuals. On this basis, because of the unreliability of group rationality, nationalism as a groupthink is prone to overstretch in the course of its development. Moreover, when such currents are not rationally controlled and end up holding state policy hostage, the state tends to follow a self-destructive path of expansionism. Pre-World War II Japan is a classic case in point.

It should be noted that the positive effects of nationalism is not being denied here, but it is crucial that a country’s policymaking process should not be ultimately being a hostage to nationalist forces. The question then, is how to prevent nationalism from spiraling out of control. From an empirical point of view, there are two different directions to prevent nationalism from getting out of control at the macro level: first, to eliminate “group irrationality” in nationalism; Second, to establish a corresponding gatekeeper between nationalism and state policymaking.

The first direction is essential to improve the thinking capacity and cultural literacy of society as a whole. This is a radical way to solve the above problems, and the improvement of the education system is the most crucial part of it. However, for reasons that are easy to understand, this approach often takes too long to implement, and the process is not really controllable. As a result, this approach, while very important, is often insufficient for policymakers.

The second approach, on the other hand, is a short-term solution (relatively speaking). To use the common metaphor of treating a bodily disease, a gatekeeper-kind-of-approach is not to eradicate the disease but rather to prevent it from damaging health amid acceptance of its existence. There are two other ways to establish gatekeepers: one is to establish a mature political system that uses institutional factors to insulate people from the negative effects of nationalism. This is also the more popular approach in developed Western countries. It should be noted that this approach has proven itself to be effective, most notably in the case of the United States, which also has two populist leaders, as opposed to Brazil, where institutional constraints and the resulting establishment have been significantly more effective in containing the negative effects of nationalism on the policy.

The alternative is to rely on a small number of political authorities within society to isolate the scourge of nationalism through the elite’s prestige and quality. Again, this is also an approach that has worked before. The best example is the significant role played by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in the “reform and opening-up” process.

So, which is more effective, institutions or authority? This is not a question that can be easily answered. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches, and because every country and society is different, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

First of all, the main advantage of institutional gatekeepers is that once established, the containment is apparent and fairly solid; however, the disadvantage is that institutions may take a long time to develop and may come at a cost (e.g., the French Revolution). An authoritative gatekeeper’s advantage is its high degree of operability, while the disadvantage is the unsustainability and instability of the individual factor. On this basis, the realization of either approach needs to be linked to local realities; in other words, neither is necessarily successful. However, despite the different possibilities of approaches and paths, one issue is certain: in this day and age, uncontrolled nationalism is still a problem that threatens national interests, and this issue must be given sufficient attention and focus by policymakers.

Lastly, for contemporary China, the case of Showa Japan has another area of critical research value: how to deal with the current international order? History has shown that almost every attempt to challenge the existing international order independently has often ended in self-destruction. Successful transformations of the international structure tend to be incremental. In the case of pre-World War II Japan, the immediate effect of nationalism was to push the Japanese government to place itself on the opposite side of the prevailing international order. Today’s China has certainly not come that far. In fact, as Professor Wang Jisi says: “In those days, Japan was an ‘institution’ in the international order, while China was rejected and discriminated against by the West as an ‘other.’ Today, Japan is still ‘within the system’ of the international order, while China has risen to become the world’s second-largest economy and its military power is not what it used to be, but there is still the question of how China views the existing international order and how to deal with its relationship with the existing international order. ” In dealing with this problem, preventing the negative effects of nationalism on state policy is undoubtedly an important aspect.

*Mr. Yu(Tony) Pan serves as the associate research fellow and the research assistant of Mr. Chan Kung, Founder, Chairman, and the Chief Researcher of ANBOUND. He obtained his master’s degree at George Washington University, the Elliott School of International Affairs; and his bachelor’s degree in University of International Business and Economics in Beijing. Mr. Pan has published pieces in various platform domestically and internationally. He currently focuses on Asian Security, geopolitics in Indo-Pacific region and the U.S.-Sino Relations.

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East Asia

CCP’s Motives for the Cultural Genocides in Tibet and East Turkestan

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Despite more than sixty years military invasion of independent Tibet and East Turkestan (Ch. Xinjiang) by People’s liberation army of Chinese Communist Party (CCP).  Gross human rights violation, massive crackdown and mass internment of Uighur Muslim peoplecontinue unabated. Prominent scholars and experts have debated in recent years over the motives and the implications of such oppressive policies. Months ago, yet another new reports and finding have revealed the implementation of military-style coercive labor programs in Tibet. A better understanding can be made by discerning the roots of such oppressive policies adopted by, and to find the connection between the mass internment camps in Xinjiang and the forced labor programs that Beijing has been implementing in Tibet. From a broader perspective, it would not be an overstatement to call the Beijing actions in Tibet and Xinjiang as imbued with genocidal intent. There are underlying similarities between the Mass internment camps in Xinjiang and the forced labor programs, as a fact that the Tibetan, Uighur, and other minority’s population are the victims of similar severe forms of repression due to their belief and securing Beijing’s rule over it. Both the Tibetan people and the Uighur are currently facing severe threat of identities extinction.

Beijing’s Final Solution in East Turkestan (CH. Xinjiang) and Tibet

The definition of the Cultural genocide is when there is a systematic effort carried out to exterminate the identity of a group through the means of destruction and annihilation of culture, language, religious institutions of that targeted group. The act of cultural genocide is generally carried out accompanied with infliction of violence and oppression.

 For a long time, both the Uighur and Tibetans have been at the receiving end of the repressive policies of CCP, which aims to eradicate their religion, culture, language, and distinct identities. Recent uncovering of rising numbers of mass internment camps in East Turkestan (Ch. Xinjiang) and the military-style coercive labor programs in Tibet has brought more spotlight on the clear indication of the cultural genocidal attempt of the Chinese regime. Chen Quanguo is currently the party secretary of the region of East Turkestan (CH. Xinjiang). As soon as he took over as the party leader of the region in 2016, the persecution of the Uighurs and other minorities through mass internment camps escalate. It is not revelation that the architect of the internment camps in East Turkestan (CH. Xinjiang) Chen Quanguo was the former party secretary of Tibet for five years, where he has formulated and implemented similar draconian measures.

2018 was a big year, when United Nation has revealed the reports of hundreds of mass internment camps being built by the Chinese government in the region of Xinjiang. Ever since the reports of mass internment of Uighurs Muslims and other minorities in the prison-like establishment came to the light of the international community, Beijing has received extensive criticism and pressure likewise. Nonetheless, this pressure from the international community doesn’t seem to have stopped the cultural genocidal pursuit of the Chinese government as they have remained more resilient and repugnant. There are a spiking number of the new mass internment camps established during 2019-20. Through the intensive use of satellite images, records of the survivors and escaped victims, and other important tracking programs, research institutes such as the Australian Strategic policy institute in the recent month of September has present a database of around 380 internment camps build across the region till now.

Surge of Forced labor programs in Tibet in the midst of strong criticism on Mass internment camps in East Turkestan (CH, Xinjiang)

In the wake of strong criticism and backlash, the Chinese government has appeared to bring up yet another new repressive policy in the region of Tibet. Which evidently have a resemblance to that of Mass internment camps. Adrian Zenz, a leading researcher on East Turkestan’s mass internment has disclosed through the reports and the findings of investigations undertaken dating back to 2016 about the establishment of forced labor programs in Tibet. Researcher Adrian Zenz was one of the earliest groups of researchers, who have alerted the world about the existence Mass internment camps. According to the reports published by Jamestown Foundation in “China Brief Volume” dating September 22 have shown that in just the first seven months of 2020, there were more than half a million Tibetan mainly consisted of the population from the rural area registered into the forced Labor programs. The forced labor program in Tibet shows the similar tendency that the Chinese government has adopted towards the Uighur. Under the guise of vocational training and labor training, the Tibetans enrolled in the programs have to strenuously undergo thought transformation and adoption of the Chinese identities. The Tibetans were forced to abandon their way of livelihood, thought and culture. In the words of Adrian Zenz  on the Coercive labor programs in Tibet and the Mass internment camps in Ch. Xinjiang “In the context of Beijing’s increasingly assimilatory ethnic minority policy, it is likely that these policies will promote a long-term loss of linguistic, cultural and spiritual heritage.” 

A month ago, the House of the Representatives of the United State has passed a resolution with overwhelming support in an outcry against the Human rights violation in Tibet. The resolution has conveyed a clear message of the urgent need to protect the identity, religions, and culture of the Tibetans. As elaborated in H. Res. 697 that the House of Representatives “affirms the cultural and religious significance of the goal of genuine autonomy for the people of Tibet” 

Beijing’s logic behind their actions in Tibet and East Turkestan (CH. Xinjiang)

The current patterns of the actions that the Chinese government is following in the Tibet and East Turkestan (Ch. Xinjiang) can be drawn parallel to actions of the Nazi government before the horrendous Holocaust took place. It is an undisputedly fact that Nazi Germany led by Hitler thrived on an extreme form of anti-Semitism and that the wrongful hatred towards the Jewish people has played major factor leading to the Holocaust. Anti-Semitism itself is engraved with inherited stereotypes, prejudice, and false generalization of the Jewish people. It wouldn’t be so far fetch to say that the Chinese government has adopted a similar sort of generalization and stereotypes towards the Uighurs people and the Tibetan people. Uighur have been generalized by the Chinese communist party as bewitch with extremist thoughts. The religion and the identity of the Uighur people have been labeled as a form of extremism and need eradication by the CCP. In the words of the CCP officials, they compare the implementation of Mass internment camps as “washing brain” to cleanse the extremist thoughts.

The lack of urgency from the international community

The situation in East Turkestan (Ch. Xinjiang) and Tibet is a bit more nuanced, but if history has taught us anything then the Holocaust didn’t happen overnight but rather it was the culmination of decades of discrimination and repressions towards the Jews. The forced labor programs in Tibet and the mass internment camp campaign is only one of the Chinese communist party latest attempt to Sinicize and dismantle the Tibetan and Uighur’s  culture, language and religion. Unless and until, the international community will urgently considered the issues of East Turkestan and Tibet more than just a side topic to discuss with China, the Chinese government’s cultural genocide actions will remain steadfast.

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China according to Pascal Gauchon

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There is no doubt that the United States wants to safeguard its global hegemony but this does not mean that the United States will remain first permanently, power will perhaps be shared in a world of permanent conflict. As for China, it does not have the ambition to rule the world. He wants to serve his interests, turn things to his advantage. However it has no missionary or proselytizing instinct, its culture does not have a purpose of global domination. Chinese emigrants who left for the world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries brought with them a clod of earth to maintain the link with the country of birth. This is not what the European or American pioneers in search of the New World did.

The Chinese dream, like the Japanese dream of the past, would be to be the absent masters of the world, without having to administer it. Take advantage of it, take advantage of it, defend yourself from the risks that can come from the outside, say the Chinese but without governing it. This I believe is Chinese philosophy. In short, there is no global ambition in Chinese culture.

For example, on the maritime power front, there is no doubt that they want to develop a maritime power, intervene where their interests are at stake, defend themselves from threats, have a say in the rules that govern the world economy but this has nothing to do with American hegemony after 1945. China rejects the idea of ​​world domination, even for itself.

The idea advanced by the Chinese nationalists is very different. They refer to the period of the Warring States, between the fifth and third centuries BC, a period in which no power, no order prevailed. In such a disputed world, China could carve out its own way without trying to impose any system.

Now, that China will succeed in becoming a great power is obvious. That it becomes such a dominant power as to create an order that replaces the existing order, it is legitimate to doubt it. Rather, the multipolar world will also be characterized by the presence of a certain disorder, in which Western countries no longer have the means to maintain the old order and China is likely to move away from its global responsibilities.

Having said that, we must not forget that China is a system of power in permanent mobilization and it is increasingly so with Xi Jinping marking a return to the spirit of Maoism. It has the advantages of an authoritarian and planned country, capable of pursuing long-term strategies without worrying about short-term profitability. In fact, the Chinese party state is restructuring the economy and society to capture innovation, to acquire it abroad by buying companies or stealing technology or even recruiting engineers. It is doing everything it can to remedy the lack of this fertile ground for freedom that we see as essential for innovation. Mobile telephony, the Internet and the so-called sharing economy have developed here faster than elsewhere. There is more social freedom in China – license, it should be noted – than the outside world believes, but certain things shouldn’t be touched. Criticism of the party state is not tolerated.

As far as Europe is concerned, this has proved to be very naive.

He hoped, for example, to rely on China to further his environmental goals, so much so that he had prepared a joint declaration to be proclaimed at the EU-China summit last June. But Beijing refused at the last minute due to the trade disputes between it and Brussels, confirming that Europe is not an essential strategic partner, but a market, a high-tech area where help can be found as in an open bar safe place to invest your capital.

As for the conflict in the South China Sea, Beijing, at least at present, has won the essential: the militarization of several coral reefs and the construction of artificial bases. The United States carries out many tests to show that access to its ships remains possible, but they are the only ones or almost the only ones, with France joining. China can therefore take a break to consolidate what it has earned, but of course there is a price to pay for Beijing: the rapprochement of Australia, India, Japan and Singapore.

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