The UK has been sleepwalking in our relationship with China. Now the international community’s faces a serious geo-political problem
When China began its long journey towards reform under Deng Xiaoping, his mantra was: ‘Hide your strength, bide your time, never take the lead’. And for 30 years the trend was broadly towards sustained growth and convergence with the international community, as China gradually opened its economy and society to the world and integrated with global trade.
But Xi Jinping’s election in 2013 marked an abrupt shift from the gradualism of the past to a far more assertive and expansionist outlook. President Xi is a nationalist whose strategy is to bolster China’s prestige and project its power through a combination of authoritarianism at home and assertive expansionism abroad – policies that have led to the incarceration of 1.5 million Uighurs in concentration camps, to a brutal crackdown in Hong Kong, to sabre-rattling in the South China Sea, and to the recent annexation of 60km of Indian territory in the Himalayas.
This increasingly belligerent behaviour challenges the values that underpin democracy and the international rules-based order, and history is littered with examples of such challenges leading to military confrontation.
Xi’s China therefore presents the international community with the most serious geo-political problem that it has faced since the end of the Cold War, and yet successive Conservative governments have utterly failed to respond effectively.
In 2015 David Cameron and George Osborne proclaimed a new ‘Golden Era’ in Sino-British relations, in which Beijing would align with democratic norms and fair trade, and British exporters would benefit from access to the world’s largest emerging market. But whether on the economy, political influence or security the Golden Era strategy has been an abject failure – Cameron and Osborne rolled out the red carpet for Beijing, and they got precious little in return.
It’s vital that we move on from the naivety and negligence of the past towards a genuine re-set in Sino-British relations that’s based on the following building blocks:
First, a clear-sighted understanding of the true purpose of the Chinese Communist Party which is to establish itself as what Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative on Foreign Policy, has called a ‘systemic rival’ to democracy.
Second, new security priorities based on leadership within Nato, forging partnerships with key EU member states and building an alliance of democracies in the Asia-Pacific region. China is the world’s second-largest military spender and is deploying cruise missiles that can reach the whole of Nato, so it is right that Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has placed China at the heart of his recently published ‘Reflections on NATO 2030’. The UK government should propose that Nato initiates closer consultations with democratic partner countries in the region, such as Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea.
Third, reduced dependency on China. We’ve allowed a state-run Chinese company to build Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, and the government has given Huawei a role in building our 5G infrastructure – to the horror of our ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence partners. And we’ve also sleepwalked into a dangerous level of supply-side dependency – the UK has 229 product lines where we are strategically dependent on China, of which 57 relate to our critical infrastructure. This has to stop – we need a coherent industrial policy that will re-build British manufacturing and re-shore skills and supply chains.
From climate change to free and fair trade, from cyber-security to public health, and from nuclear non-proliferation to the post-pandemic economic recovery, there is not a single global challenge that can be tackled without the constructive engagement of Beijing.
But whilst positive dialogue and a desire for co-operation should always be our watchwords in our dealings with the Chinese government, we must also apply hard-headed realism and pro-actively deploy carefully calibrated measures in close partnership with our allies to deter further aggression. Because if China is allowed to act with impunity in Hong Kong or the South China Sea, then Taiwan could be next.
Since 2010 our country has been absent from the global stage. We’ve left a vacuum for others to fill, and this abdication of responsibility has had consequences for our national security. It’s time for a new approach based on the confident assertion of our interests and values, and this has to start with the development of an effective China strategy.