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Debate: The West should engage not confront China

Author: Natalia Vasnier Published: 06 Mar 2021

An event organized by Intelligence2 x ECFR, on 2 Feb 2021.

Speakers: Anastasia Lin a Human Rights Activist and Professor at King’s College London, Kerry Brown also Director of the Lau China Institute.

Chaired by Andrew Small, Senior Transatlantic Fellow, German Marshall Fund & Associate Senior Policy Fellow, ECFR.

Kerry Brown believes that the West should engage with China

It is essential to understand the meaning of engagement before arguing for the motion. According to Kerry Brown, engagement does not mean strong friendship or ideological alignment, but self-interest. Getting involved with the second biggest economy in the world means that that “we” should be pragmatic and can have tactical disagreements. There is no denying that China has huge problems with human rights abuses, with current issues in Xingjian and Hong Kong. However, Brown argues that the West should think beyond its emotions when it comes to situations in China.

“If you choose confrontation and not engagement, it will only be self-defeating for the West.” - Kerry Brown.

Global Health and Climate Change

These are the core themes in which both West and East should engage according to Brown. In relation to climate change, China has some of the strongest policies in the world, and the country accounts for a fifth of the world's population and economy. Subsequently, the West will not be able to resolve the issue of Climate Change if they remain antagonist to China.

Kerry Brown argues that engagement must be selective and intelligent in order to achieve Western objectives. Unlike the West, China does not aim to share its values with the world or be the world’s leader. China economic strategy is based on self-interest and is, was he calls, an introspected entity.

On the issue of the pandemic, it cannot be dealt with at a nation-state level. There is a need to maintain a partnership with China, who has been producing masks and equipment to combat the virus worldwide. As we are aware the virus has no boundaries, and crosses borders, therefore international cooperation is essential.

“Engagement is a no brainer” - Kerry Brown.

Anastasia Lin believes that the West Should not engage with China.

Anastasia is an actress, activist, and a political commentator. In 2015, she won the Miss World Canada title and was supposed to represent Canada at a pageant in China. However, she was refused a visa from the Chinese government and declared Persona non grata due to her outspoken views on the country’s Human Rights violations.

The options of the motion are not mutually exclusive, and Anastasia agrees that the West should engage with China. Only if the West manages to assert its own values and interests in a respectful way but they have failed to do so.

To emphasize her argument, she enumerates a consecutive set of rhetorical questions about the illegal and unethical acts that China has committed over the years.

“Do we confront China when it exploits developing countries by lending them the money they could not possibly pay back. Then seizes the strategic assets they put out as collateral. Do we confront China when it threatens our national security by using Huawei to gain access to our data and critical infrastructure as part of their information war?” - Anastasia Lin.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) often mentions the West’s “black hand” in issues such as the narrative that the US is directing the Hong Kong protests. Therefore, we must understand that the Chinese Communist Party will always have a hostile approach to the West and Policymakers should keep that in mind while thinking about engagement, adds Anastasia.

The situation in Xingjian has sparked a wide-ranging debate on the West's relations with China. In order to protect Western Human Rights values, engagement with companies that use Uighur labour in their production chain must stop.

The Future of Sino-Western relations

There is a debate on the possibility of boycotting the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. Brown believes that there are other ways to voice disagreement rather than a boycott. Indeed, it would be a powerful gesture because the Olympics are of great importance to China. As an alternative, he suggests exerting economic pressure on specific sectors, like the supply chain sector which affects the Uighurs. The problem of boycotting is that it would feed into the victim narratives of the Chinese Communist Party, he argues that this will serve in favour of China rather than the boycotters.

On the other hand, Anastasia argues that boycott is a good idea and should take place. Such action would show China that it cannot set limits on the Western freedom of speech. In addition, for the boycott to have a significant impact, as for any protest, enough people must participate.

With regard to the EU-China Comprehensive Trade Agreement, Brown explained that such agreements are necessary for a global trading world, engaging with major economic powers such as China is essential. At the moment, the West generally sees China as a single entity, the CCP. In fact, in reality it is quite the opposite, some people in China agree with their government, while others are unsure about its directives but do not accept the Western capitalist approach. Kerry Brown added that in the future the West should seek to engage with China’s middle class. Anastasia adds that in order to hear more from the Chinese people, the West should overcome the CCP.

For both speakers, the countries that have the right approach to engage with China are Japan, Taiwan and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). A hybrid of the strategies of those three countries would create a realistic strategy the West could use to engage with China, Kerry added.

On a personal note, I agree with the motion that the West should engage not confront China. As the speakers have pointed out, China is soon to become the world’s largest economic power and it is essential to economically engage with it to be part of the global trade market. However, it is, of course, irrefutable that many CCP actions are carried out in contravention of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the instance of engaging in conflict and confrontation against China, the West will only be self-defeating. Moreover, China possesses nuclear weapons and the Western powers do not want to enter in another tense situation like during the Cold War.

-Natalia Vasnier, BA History at King's College London-

More information:

- Huawei: Huawei C.F.O. Is Arrested in Canada for Extradition to the U.S. - The New York Times (

- EU-China Comprehensive Agreement: EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment: Milestones and documents - Trade - European Commission (

- Anastasia Lin: Anastasia Lin | We Would Start A New Cold War With China (3/6) | Oxford Union - YouTube

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