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The Government is right to engage with China, and in doing so to make compromises along the way. But give the impression that your principles are a bit of a sham, and you will not get any credit for compromising on them

When I worked in Parliament, we used to receive dozens of petition e-mails each year expressing strong opposition to the Yulin Dog Meat Festival in China. Every year, at the Summer Solstice, thousands of dogs are slaughtered in Yulin in Guangxi province and served as hotpot. The petition demanded the British Government intervene in order to stop the ‘barbaric’ practice. Despite the expressed opposition of Simon Cowell and Ricky Gervais and hundreds of thousands of online petitioners, the practice continues.

The petitioners’ arguments – we do not regard dogs as animals to be eaten, therefore you must give up your ‘barbaric practice’ – are music to the ears of the Chinese authorities. They distract from elements of Chinese opposition to the festival (there is tension in China between proletarian dog-eaters and bourgeois dog-walkers), and help Beijing to argue that Westerners have always tried to impose their culture on China under the guise of universal human rights.

Chinese authorities can – and do – respond by arguing that Britain justified the Opium Wars with talk of ‘free trade’, and that support for ‘autonomy’ for Tibet and ‘rights’ for the Uighur in Xinjiang are designed to encourage seditious forces to weaken China; ‘democratic reform’ is designed to undermine the Chinese Communist Party, the one political system that managed to get China off its knees.

Because of the history of Western relations with China, few countries are more resistant to our lecturing on these kinds of issues. Because of its rising power, even fewer countries are more capable of resisting our involvement in their internal affairs. Indeed it is perhaps the only country in the world that can actually punish most Western countries for doing so.

On the occasion of ‘President’ Xi Jinping’s state visit to London (Xi’s position as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party outranks the title of ‘President’, in accordance with the CCP’s control of the Chinese state), Britons are finding that this has implications not just for the United Kingdom’s foreign policy, but also for its self-respect and the esteem in which other countries hold it.

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Implicit in the British Government’s present China policy is the argument that when dealing with Beijing it has no obligation to do that which it cannot do. If China cannot be persuaded to make substantive changes in its behaviour or internal arrangements, it is no good making futile gestures that cost jobs and damage British interests; although Britain should work with like-minded countries to construct international standards that China can be encouraged to adopt in its own interests, there is no point in pushing its values on a bilateral basis. If on occasion that means upsetting the Americans, such as when London broke cover to join China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in the face of Washington’s objections, so be it.

David Cameron and George Osborne have been rewarded for their hard-headedness with a significant financial windfall. The Treasury appears to have attained its ambition of securing London’s position as the main offshore trading hub for the Renminbi, and more than £30 billion of commercial deals were announced on the occasion of President Xi’s state visit. Most contentiously, China is investing billions of pounds in a new generation of British nuclear power plants, taking a one-third share of the French-led £24 billion Hinkley Point project.

Although many Britons remain squeamish about such close relations with China, the Government also received praise – particularly from the business community – for their pragmatism and far-sightedness. But pragmatism takes many forms, and the manner in which Cameron and Osborne have pursued their ‘realist’ China policy also carries risks.

Unfortunately, the best way for China’s leaders to demonstrate that their country can longer be pushed around is to be seen to push around the countries that used to humiliate China. Britain is a prime candidate for this treatment because no Western country is regarded in China as having behaved so egregiously during its ‘Century of Humiliation’, and no country in China’s sights has fallen quite so far. It is crucial, therefore, that the British Government demonstrates that although it is prepared to engage wholeheartedly and to make certain compromises, it will not allow that positive approach to be exploited.

This is not just a question of pride. As Evan Medeiros, President Obama’s former Asia adviser warned, “If there is one truism in managing relations with a rising China, it is that if you give in to Chinese pressure, it will inevitably lead to more Chinese pressure. London is playing a dangerous game of tactical accommodation in the hopes of economic benefits, which could lead to more problems down the line.” James McGregor, chairman of consultancy group APCO Worldwide’s Chinese operations, was more blunt: “If you act like a panting puppy, the object of your attention is going to think they have got you on a leash.”

Beijing froze Cameron out for an unexpectedly long time after he met with the Dalai Lama in May 2012, and the Prime Minister’s attempt to visit China in mid-2013 was cancelled when it emerged that the CCP’s newly appointed leaders were not prepared to meet with him. It was a diplomatic punishment beating, and Cameron subsequently made it clear as the price for his rehabilitation that he had ‘no plans’ to meet with the Dalai Lama again. His trade delegation to China in late 2013 (for which Osborne rescheduled his Autumn Statement to Parliament) was marred by Beijing’s constant last-minute chopping and changing of Cameron’s schedule, leading a British official to admit that “We’re off the naughty step, but not very far off.”

The overall effect was worse than if Cameron had never met the Dalai Lama in the first place – if you decide to meet him once, stand by your right to meet him again. Instead, the message was sent that the British Prime Minister will respond to punishment with compliance.

Worse was the Coalition Government’s anaemic non-response to Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong. Although Beijing has conceded the principle of universal suffrage for Hong Kong’s elections in 2017, it plans to retain tight control of the selection of candidates. In a 2014 White Paper, it declared that ‘the high degree of autonomy of the Hong Kong special administrative region is not an inherent power, but one that comes solely from the authorisation by the central leadership,’ and that administrators, including judges, should demonstrate that they are ‘patriots’. Three student leaders of the resulting non-violent protests were charged in August over their involvement and one, nineteen-year old Joshua Wong, faces five years in jail.

When Hong Kong’s leading democracy activists paid a visit to London during the protests, neither Cameron nor then Foreign Secretary William Hague would meet with them. When the Chinese Embassy in London told the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee that it would be refused entry to Hong Kong for a planned visit to assess the implementation of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, the Foreign Office described the decision as ‘regrettable’, but Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire chose not to summon the Chinese Ambassador.

However many compromises Britain may have to make in order to pursue its interests in China – over Tibet, over dissidents, over the eating of dogs or whatever it may be – Hong Kong is different. The territory demonstrates that there is no contradiction between Chinese culture, an open society, and the rule of law. Its success as a financial centre, dependent on an independent judiciary, is in China’s own interest.

Most importantly, however, it is governed in accordance with an agreement to which the United Kingdom remains a party – Britain retains an obligation to the people of Hong Kong, and to its own word. If this new partnership is to be a fair one, Britain must insist China keeps not only to the letter but also to the spirit of past agreements.

Significantly, Britain’s muted response over Hong Kong did not yield results. When Swire travelled to Hong Kong in January, neither its Chief Executive CY Leung nor Leung’s deputy saw fit to meet with him. The Government’s relations with MPs were damaged, and Parliament’s standing abroad undermined by the Foreign Office’s feeble response to Beijing’s snub. Advocates for Hong Kong democracy and the rights guaranteed by a Conservative Government in 1984 felt betrayed. And despite Britain’s understandable sensitivity about being blamed for Hong Kong’s ‘Umbrella Movement’, Chinese media blamed it nonetheless.

Britain’s cultivation of China may also have consequences for its relations with the United States. At the very time that Xi was being toasted at Buckingham Palace, the US and China have been preparing to square off over the expansion of Chinese power in the South China Sea. It has been much easier for Britain to execute its own ‘pivot to Asia’ because of the lack of a serious security dimension to Britain’s interests in the Far East. This has allowed it to court China in a way that the United States, a country with antagonistic relations with Beijing over Pacific security, cannot. As a guarantor of Britain’s security, it is not difficult to understand America’s resentment – even if Osborne’s AIIB gambit proves to have been far-sighted and successful.

Beijing’s encroachment into the inner sanctum of Britain’s nuclear and telecommunications infrastructure is also deeply worrying for the Americans, who are used to sharing the most sensitive intelligence and intellectual property with the UK. But there should be more direct concerns for British citizens, aside from the questionable economic benefits of the deals struck on nuclear investment.

It may be true that Beijing knows that any indication that its investments in the critical national infrastructure of Western countries are being exploited to threaten those countries’ national security, and they will miss out on those commercial opportunities – and many more besides – forever. In addition, the action of Chinese companies making sensitive investments will be very closely scrutinised by Britain’s intelligence agencies.

But it is also true that when it comes to the sprawling spider’s web that is the Chinese state, Beijing’s left hand does not always know what the right hand is doing, and the ability of the British state to supervise Chinese companies satisfactorily is also open to question.

When Huawei, a Chinese company with links to the People’s Liberation Army and banned from operating in the United States and Australia due to their security concerns, was allowed to provide equipment for Britain’s telecommunications network in the mid-2000s, it emerged after an investigation by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee in 2013 that the project had been given the green light by officials without referring it to Ministers, and without properly taking national security concerns into consideration. It also transpired that the staff working at the centre in Banbury established to monitor Huawei’s activities were paid and managed by Huawei.

Just as Cameron and Osborne were making their hard sell to Beijing that Britain was open to Chinese investment, the Committee warned that “We are not convinced that there has been any improvement since then in terms of an effective procedure for considering foreign investment in CNI.” Sources close to the Committee let it be known that Downing Street and the Treasury raised concerns that perceived criticism of Huawei could be interpreted as an insult by Beijing – which might jeopardise the very Chinese investment the Committee was raising concerns about.

By no means unimportant is the effect of all this on Britain’s self-respect. Britain was built on the exercise of raw economic and military power, but as that power has waned it has reinvented itself as a more principled global citizen. That conversion has its roots in a subtle understanding of the national interest – whereas it might once have thrived in accordance with the law of the jungle, it now needs a rules-based order.

This ‘moral turn’ has also helped the British people to come to terms with their loss of status. To be weak is one thing, to be unprincipled another. But to be weak and unprincipled is more than many can bear. As people lose faith in their country as even a potential force for good (or rather, neither good nor a force), they become more receptive to the cynicism and moral relativism offered by domestic populists and foreign powers – often working in tandem. Britain’s leaders must ask themselves why separatists, extremists and radicals have all made such spectacular, unthinkable gains in recent years. Morale matters.

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The South China Morning Post described Xi’s visit as ‘a pragmatic way for China to build relations with other countries as they come to terms with Beijing’s pursuit of a new world order that better reflects its increased economic power.’ But Britain’s overwhelming national interest, which it shares with all of its allies, is to ensure that a rising China comes to accept the legitimacy of the existing order, rather than rewrite the rules in accordance with the interests of the leading powers of the non-democratic world. The question is whether by engaging with China in the way that it has done, the Government is making this long-term objective more or less likely.

Worryingly, Britain’s bilateral engagement with China is coming at a time of strained relations with its own closest allies. Washington’s discomfort with Britain’s China policy is only one in a series of American concerns about Britain – its declining defence capabilities and the risk of a Brexit chief among them. European leaders are bemused and angry that the UK should, as they see it, try to exploit the EU’s present problems by demanding changes in its own narrow interest, whilst threatening to throw the whole project into turmoil by pulling out at its most vulnerable moment.

Britain risks, therefore, missing out on the multiplier effect of having good relations with all sides. If Beijing sees London as a means to have more influence in Washington, that gives London influence in Beijing. If Brussels sees London as a means to have more influence in Beijing, that gives London more influence in Brussels, and so on.

But if London is losing traction in both Brussels and Washington, it will find it harder to translate its new economic ties with China into the political leverage – in either direction – that the Government says it is hoping to secure. Indeed there is a risk that by going it alone from a position of weakness, not only will Britain gain very little influence in Beijing, but it will also undermine any attempt at a coherent Western response to China’s rise – a failure that can only be to China’s advantage, and at our expense.

It is true that if you push your human rights concerns in too ham-fisted a way, you could harm your own citizens and get nothing in return. Britain has a free and dynamic civil society, which should not always rely on the Government to make its case for it. The Government is right to engage with China, and in doing so to make compromises along the way. But it may not be pragmatic to let Beijing know that you respond positively to punishment, or to let the world know there is very little you are prepared to stand up for. Give the impression that you don’t actually care about your principles, or that they are a bit of a sham, and you will not get any credit for compromising on them.

@crsdavies

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