“An escalation in Taiwan would be to the detriment of all humanity.”

“An escalation in Taiwan would be to the detriment of all humanity.”

Brian Wong (Hong Kong, 1997) is a geopolitical strategist and philosopher who, despite his young age, already boasts a vast resume of advice and publications on China and its relations with the United States. Wong holds degrees in philosophy, economics and politics from the University of Oxford and Ph.D. candidate in Political Philosophy from the same university, where he co-founded the Oxford Political Review. In recent years he has taught policy modules at Oxford and Stanford universities, and lectured at Tsinghua, Harvard, Science Po and Stanford, as well as advising multinationals on macroeconomic risks in Asia.

He is currently a columnist for the Hong Kong Economic Journal and has contributed to publications such as TIME, Foreign Policy, Financial Times o Diplomat. This Thursday, he participated in a conference in Madrid on the geopolitical importance of rare earths, where he attended to 20minutos to reflect on the current situation in China both internally and on the global stage.

How important is it for a country to be able to control rare earths?Nickel, cobalt and lithium are vital components for the green transition and tackling climate change. Countries compete and fight for secure and stable supplies of these minerals, to maintain their own supply chains in the manufacture of solar panels, batteries for electric vehicles or other strategic instruments. There are also other uses that go beyond this, such as strategic infrastructure, defensive and military technologies or aerospace navigation. They are useful for geopolitical purposes, by withdrawing them or indirectly and implicitly threatening to cut off supply.

What role does China play in the global scramble for these lands?The control of raw materials and rare minerals as a geopolitical tool is not limited to China, it is also used by countries such as Russia, the United States, to some extent the EU, Japan, Latin American and Southeast Asian economies. There is nothing special about governing using minerals; it is part of international relations and the way countries compete. All countries have their own economic strategy, and understandably so. It is from global governance that we can balance domestic and national demand between different countries, with the need for a sustainable green transition. Even the poorest countries must have access to the transition; something that, to be fair, China has done a lot of work on in African and also Latin American nations with the technologies needed to get out of the ecological quagmire.

If there is one thing that characterizes China, it is its geopolitical approach is that it focuses on the economy and tries to be neutral politically. An example is Syria, where it is involved in the reconstruction of the country, or also in its weight in Africa. What is its diplomatic strategy?Chinese foreign policy has several interconnected levels: the defensive, the assertive (through the economy) and the symbolic. The defensive level has the main objective of preserving what they consider their territorial integrity and state sovereignty. And not only in terms of economic and national policy, but also in foreign policy with issues such as the relationship between mainland China and Taiwan in national reunification. This is a red line and a priority for Beijing and it is not going to give in or give up because of foreign actors exerting pressure. At the symbolic level, the Chinese Communist Party loves to use phrases like “changes never seen in 100 years” or “China-led multipolar order”. These are not just rhetorical ploys; it wants to show that many countries do not buy the simplistic narrative that Western democracy is the only way to rule. The push for the version of multipolarity, which we can criticize and should analyze, is a vision that China is trying to promulgate.

And economically what are they after?The economic level points out that China does not yearn to be a militarily expansive superpower, but to be a global power. And it can be seen in projects such as the New Silk Road, the 17 + 1 initiative or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. In these we do not see China coming out and saying that it wants to create a world order of its own outside the World Bank, the IMF and the United States. Most Chinese voices argue that they need to rise economically and become a very powerful trading and investment center. For this, interconnectivity is important, especially in the global south. And they are not doing this out of altruism, but also not because they want to be a power that craves influence for influence’s sake.

At that defensive level, tensions with Taiwan are increasingly common and the war narrative is very much present. Will there be a direct confrontation?Beijing’s concern cannot be reduced to mere economic interest. It is a matter of symbolic interest and pride of the Chinese people. That national reunification will be an important item on its agenda, but Beijing is thought to be in a hurry with it and there is speculation that it will be before 2027. This is a mistake. XI Jinping has not given any deadline either in his speeches or in his reports. Beijing is aware that military conflicts are very costly and has no intention of taking Taiwan militarily. This does not mean that, given the case, it would not do so. Or that it would not use other means for such national reunification: either through economic and commercial tools or pressures applied on Taiwanese citizens to identify themselves as Chinese. Beijing has been quite successful in reducing the number of partners that officially recognize Taiwan as a state.

Who does seem to support Taiwan is the U.S. Could the U.S. intervene?There is a possibility that foreign actors could engage in the defense of Taiwan. This could force Beijing’s hand and, therefore, they would act to defend what they see as inviolable interests. I would be very concerned about possible escalation if these actors saw deterrence as the only end game, regardless of the logic of the Chinese government. This is not to say that we should take Beijing’s words at face value and accept it, but on sensitive or contentious issues, they should put themselves in China’s shoes. If a fervent and zealous presidential candidate emerges in the United States next year (and I don’t think Biden falls into this category) who is advised by some of China’s more hawkish extremists, who believe that a war over the Taiwan Strait is the way to deny China its rise, I would be incredibly alarmed. If they push for escalation in Taiwan it would be to the detriment not only of East Asia, but of all humanity. Especially given how connected the EU and China are commercially in mineral supplies, capital flows, business and market access.

photographer: Jorge Paris Hernandez (((FORECAST 20M))) subject: geopolitical expert interview. Brian Wong
Brian Wong, expert in Chinese geopolitics.
Jorge Paris

Where there is indeed a war already going on is in Ukraine and in recent months, after receiving accusations of giving arms to Russia, China has become involved and offered to mediate. Why has it now decided to intervene?On the basis that Putin is doing something disgusting and anyone with a decent sense of humanity should be willing to denounce it, I would refute the claim that Beijing has changed its stance. China has had a similar posture to India: it rhetorically sympathizes on some things with Russia and may see this as a wake-up call for Westerners, but it has not supplied Russia with lethal military aid. There are many statements acknowledging that China has not, including the CIA. There are also other explanations for this rhetoric that China has changed its posture. The country has spent the last year busy with the domestic economy, COVID, the depressed real estate sector… They were worried that domestic problems would not affect their legitimacy. This year with more time and resources they have pushed foreign policies. The active exposure in bringing peace to Ukraine is not a coincidence, but part of a coordinated reorientation of Chinese diplomacy, at least in appearance, towards a more welcoming and friendly image of the Chinese Communist Party.

This position will also help its relations with other countries.One of the reasons Beijing has been so assertive in its Ukrainian peacemaking efforts is that it wants to repair its relations with the European Union, and is aware of the disruption and anxiety that the Russian invasion has inflicted on them. Beijing wants to negotiate on a fairer basis, to resume and restart the dialogue of its shattered relations with the EU after the pandemic and the sanctions cycle. Mediating the Ukrainian conflict is the best way to win back the hearts and minds of disillusioned European countries. On the other hand, if we look at Donald Trump’s presidency, the hallmark was America first and isolating itself, something the Chinese saw as a window to show they could fill US shoes.

Did they succeed?Beijing is keen to demonstrate that when it comes to brokering peace, facilitating dialogue and mediating in regional conflicts, it has an important role to play. We have already seen recent examples such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, its current attempt to mediate peace in Yemen and, of course, it is now saying that it could do that in Ukraine as well.

Spain, with the EU presidency, is also looking to expand that international relevance. How does China see Spain?China values Spain as a trading and economic partner because it is the fourth largest economy in the EU. It is also an economy where the goods it produces and exports are compatible with the gigantic Chinese middle class market. They are massive markets with enormous purchasing power, and China knows very well that Spain is incredibly good at producing goods that cannot be found anywhere else such as Iberian ham, cheese and haute cuisine products that the Chinese love. Spain also serves as a stabilizing factor for China within the EU. Beijing will increasingly emphasize this, regardless of which party takes power. China looks to Spain as a space for politically neutral cultural and academic exchanges and also for tourism. This is a beautiful country and Chinese tourists would love to come. If you look at the current landscape, the EU is still closely tied to the Americans for many reasons: ideological values, people-to-people relations, civil society, cultural ties… China doesn’t want them to choose between them or the United States. That’s the key message I’m sensing from Chinese leaders in recent months.

Precisely the Chinese leadership has been revalidated once again by Xi Jinping, and sometimes from the West he is compared to leaders like Mao and accused of being authoritarian. Are they comparable political figures?Mao had the peasants and the rural poor as his base of support, while Xi Jinping’s mandate comes from the middle and lower middle class. Moreover, Xi is a man who believes strongly in bureaucracy and administration. That is a key difference. On the other hand, the cult of personality mattered a lot to Mao, fostering a strong sense of loyalty to him alone, while Xi believes more in the system and the party apparatus itself. Despite all the criticism often heard in the Western media, Xi has cracked down on corruption, environmental pollution excesses and made sure to reverse the inequalities that existed before 2012. Mao, in part, must be given credit for his first 20 years, when he implemented industrializing measures to improve efficiency through collectivization. But at the end of his rule, through the cultural revolution, the Great Leap Forward and the famine years, the scale of suffering of the Chinese people with him at the helm is something that has never been seen before. There are huge differences between Xi and Mao and those who try to draw comparisons are either making simplistic analyses or have a particular agenda.

photographer: Jorge Paris Hernandez (((20M FORECASTS))) subject: Geopolitical expert interview. Brian Wong
Brian Wong, expert on Chinese geopolitics.
Jorge Paris

Before the arrival of covid, there were strong internal protests against the Chinese government in Hong Kong. What will the future of this region be like?Hong Kong has been a city of China since 1997. An administrative region governed by the ‘two systems one country’ regime. This is a reality that we cannot change no matter how many protest songs we write or slogans to disrupt the status quo. Hong Kong’s future has been and will continue to be intertwined with that of China; perhaps in the form of the Greater Bay Area, which is a vast expanding economic mega-zone with an economy that currently rivals that of Canada. Within two or three years it will surpass South Korea in size. That sort of sense that we have to protect security at all costs has been intensified and amplified by the 2019 protests. I’m not going to judge the merits and demerits of that, but I think it’s something that has to be decided by the people of China, and that includes the Hong Kong people.

Is it still an important enclave for China?Hong Kong is not what it used to be, but that doesn’t mean it’s finished. China is still a key player on the global stage and the world needs a place where they can understand a more nuanced and balanced version and experience the China that has a greater degree of freedom of expression. They need a place where they can access information about mainland China without getting caught up in the political vicissitudes and turmoil seen in mainland China. It is in the Chinese Communist Party’s interest that Hong Kong remains economically independent, legally intact and autonomous, and politically secure. It is in its interest to do so in order to attract foreign direct investment to ensure that the world can access China; even those who do not want to engage with the country.

From your perspective as an analyst on China and being from there, is it easy to analyze this country without getting into trouble with the authorities?My approach to the geopolitical analysis of China has several strands. One is to recognize that it is not a monolith. There are 1.4 billion people living in China who do not agree on everything. Even taking into account that there are over 90 million people in the party and its own members have different opinions. You can see mildly nationalistic LGBIQ rights activists or economically right-wing citizens and yet who firmly believe that the government is the way to go. You also have talented scientists and academics who return from abroad because they are patriotic and incredibly creative entrepreneurs who feel oxygen-starved and leave the country. To reduce China to a place without freedom is too simplistic.

How do you see the country?It’s a place that has many different histories, approaches, frames of reference and value systems. I do my best to tell the truth. That’s why I don’t hide the fact that China has huge economic problems, contradictions in terms of aging demographics, and its foreign policy could be much better. I do it in a way that allows me to be honest both in public and in private. Without ever demonizing or presenting China as an unsalvageable ruin. Especially because I don’t believe that is the case. We have to understand that, like all countries, China has enormous problems, enormous opportunities and enormous potential advantages. If we only look at one of them and say China is great, we will become naïve apologists for the regime. But if we only say China is bad, then we are going to fall into the trap of being too simplistic. My role as a public writer is to be a constructive critic. We should solve problems by denouncing them, and not by reducing China to a 5,000-year-old civilization, because ordinary people don’t think of themselves that way, they have other concerns.

Like what?They see themselves as normal people who need to buy cheese and bread. Go to work at nine o’clock. Pick up their kids at three. Finish work at six. Go home, cook and watch TV. Maybe they laugh at the serials on TV or watch anti-corruption dramas like Kuang Biao. Maybe before going to bed they talk on WeChat, which is the WhatsApp and Facebook-like version. Normal people in short. Let’s not see them as a different civilization. That’s why when I do an analysis of China I always ask myself how do ordinary people feel on the ground? “I have no freedom, my life sucks, I’m so sad…” Or is there more nuance and complexity? And secondly, what does the Chinese government think? And I want to be very clear, this is not necessarily agreeing with the Chinese Communist Party. Without that position, we will never be able to deal successfully with the second largest economy in the world. And soon to become the first.

Kayleigh Williams