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Splendid “Isolation” in a Fight Within Europe

Mar 14, 2022
  • John Gong

    Professor at University of International Business and Economics and China Forum Expert


George Canning, who presided over the British foreign policy in the early nineteenth century, once famously said, “Europe's domain extends to the shores of the Atlantic, England’s begins there.” 

The Canning doctrine, which postulates a strategy of disentangling from conflicts on the European continent, avoiding alliances with anyone, but still pursuing trade opportunities with everyone, was followed extensively by the subsequent British governments in the bulk of the nineteenth century, particularly under the governments of Lord Salisbury between 1885 and 1902. This British diplomatic policy is now referred to by historians as the “splendid isolation”, a term first coined by a Canadian politician, George Eulas Foster, who wrote in 1896, “In these somewhat troublesome days when the great Mother Empire stands splendidly isolated in Europe.” 

The troublesome days in Europe are coming back to haunt again, as war in Ukraine is wreaking havoc and its impact can be felt around the world. Yet today, China is also faced with a dire situation that George Canning faced in nineteen century England. The Americans are forcing China to make a stand on this horrendous war – you are either with us or against us, as U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan warned today that “China would absolutely face consequences if it helped Moscow evade sanctions over the war in Ukraine.” 

Sullivan uttered this kind of threatening, coercive rhetoric on the eve of a scheduled meeting on Monday with China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi. The first line of rejection of Sullivan’s blackmail rests with the myth that maintaining a normal trade relationship with one of the warring parties, actually one of both warring parties in this case, could be interpreted as evading sanctions, which are neither the result of a UN resolution nor sanctioned by the majority of countries, economies, and peoples in the world. None of the BRICS countries besides Russia are on the sanction bandwagon, nor are other major economies such as Indonesia, Argentina and Saudi Arabia. In fact, even the European Union’s money is still flowing into Putin’s coffer for the still running gas in pipelines traversing through Ukraine. 

But the more important rejection of Sullivan’s blackmail rests upon the national security argument that is of existential importance to China. While Europe’s, England’s and America’s domains extend to whatever shores of the Atlantic, which are not even remotely reachable to us, China’s domain however, stops at the 4,209-kilometer-long border with Russia. Toeing Washington’s sanction line would be essentially inserting us into an animosity relationship with Moscow, with which we have had our fair share of painful historic memories in the past. 

Russia holds a stockpile of over 3,000 nuclear warheads, larger than the all the rest of the world combined. Russia, in a sense, is invincible in this war in that no matter how badly it is bruised in Ukraine and how many battles it loses on the battleground, the only chance of its total defeat would be an internal implosion. The country is undefeatable in a military sense. 

Yet, look at all those countries that have announced sanctions so far. They are for the most part under some kind of umbrella of Washington’s nuclear protection. We don’t. We have a paltry stock of about 300 warheads. What national interests on earth, and what benefits we get from Washington in return, would risk us being dragged into a potential world war? 

Some may frame this debate in the context of a moral argument in that Russia’s aggression, which is indeed deplored, deserves a righteous response. But this war, with all its convoluted set of various theories of cause, be it the NATO eastward expansion theory, be it Putin’s ambition to restore the historic Russian empire, be it Ukraine’s leadership ineptitude, be it America’s instigation to repress EU’s independence penchant, none of these things on its own or in combination would render this war any more immoral than the countless wars in European history and American history for that matter. If this war demands a righteous response from a remote, irrelevant country such as China, Washington’s war on Iraq, war on Afghanistan would all demand a righteous response – against America I mean!

Ultimately this is a European war, a war “within the Caucasian family”, as Kiron Skinner, the once Trump State Department’s director of policy planning, would put it. George Canning’s wisdom still rings bell for China’s strategic thinking in a tumultuous time like this. In 1866, British Foreign Secretary Lord Derby explained in more precise terms the Canning doctrine as follows: 

“It is the duty of the Government of this country, placed as it is with regard to geographical position, to keep itself upon terms of goodwill with all surrounding nations, but not to entangle itself with any single or monopolizing alliance with any one of them; above all to endeavor not to interfere needlessly and vexatiously with the internal affairs of any foreign country.” 

The adjective “splendid” bestowed by historians onto this policy doesn’t come without a reason. The British Empire thrived in those troublesome years for the European continent, and its economy reigned supreme via its ubiquitous trading network around the world. Today China is the world’s largest trading nation. No reason on earth, no matter how lofty it is, should spoil the country’s trajectory of development by plunging its people into an unjustified, untrustworthy, and totally unsecure alliance for this country. 

But the reason that the word “isolation” in the title of this article comes with a quotation mark is because isolation should not be interpreted literally. In fact, even the nineteen century Britain was arguably not isolated economically, as it traded with other European powers and remained heavily connected with the British Empire. Being the largest trading nation right now, we are certainly no isolationists, but internationalists. We are not localists; we are globalists. 

But aside from economics in terms of maintaining normal trade relationships with every country, Beijing can indeed play a political role, albeit maybe quite limited, in terms of promoting peace in Ukraine. Beijing can play a more active role in mediating a peace solution between the two sides together with France and Germany. Also China can and should, as it has already done, provide more humanitarian aides to Ukrainian people.

In short, Washington would like the world to believe that not imposing sanctions particularly by China would be tantamount to siding with Russia. This is a false narrative that should be rejected outright by the British experience. It is in this country’s national interest, but more importantly also totally morally acceptable, to stay out of this mess, while at the same time unwaveringly championing peace and stability.  

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