Sat, 20 April 2024

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Forging closer ties with China is naïve


4 min read

“Enough is enough. For too long, politicians in Britain and across the West have rolled out the red carpet and turned a blind eye to China's nefarious activity and ambitions…I will change this on day one as prime minister.”

Who said this? Was it Liz Truss? Nope.

"They torture, detain and indoctrinate their own people, including in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, in contravention of their human rights. And they have continually rigged the global economy in their favour by suppressing their currency.”

Iain Duncan Smith? Wrong again. 

It was, of course, Rishi Sunak on the campaign trail last year. Easy to forget, but during the more desperate moments of his first ill-fated bid for the top job, Rishi came over all hawkish and started foaming at the mouth about Beijing’s behaviour. The PM’s short-lived turn as a China hawk even culminated in whizzy graphics declaring China to be our “number one threat”. 

It isn’t a Cold War that James Cleverly should be worried about. It’s a hot war in the Taiwan Strait

Fast forward a mere eight months and I regret to report that our Prime Minister did not “change this on day one”, as hawk Rishi (RIP) had so confidently asserted. On the contrary, he introduced a China policy of “robust pragmatism” which I promise is a real thing, not an Armando Ianucci creation.

Tonight, the Foreign Secretary will cement the government’s commitment to “robust pragmatism” by taking a swipe at concerned backbenchers. 

"It would be clear and easy – perhaps satisfying – for me to declare a new Cold War and say that our goal is to isolate China," he is expected to say. 

It isn’t a Cold War that James Cleverly should be worried about. It’s a hot war in the Taiwan Strait – one that we need a clear and urgent strategy to avoid. I don’t know a single MP calling on the government to declare a new Cold War and isolate China. This is straw man stuff, and such a serious topic deserves better. 

The Foreign Secretary will go on to argue, “China’s scale and complexity cannot be reduced to one-word descriptions”. OK, but isn’t that exactly what the Prime Minister did a few months ago? And don’t we describe the United States and others as allies? 

All the so-called China hawks – a cross-party consensus, by the way, not a Tory group – want is some indication that the government has a grip of a generation defining challenge. Instead, we have a government clinging to obsolete engagement models and wishful thinking in the face of all the evidence. 

Cleverly’s worst howler tonight: “No significant global problem – from climate change to pandemic prevention, from economic stability to nuclear proliferation – can be solved without China.”

Did anybody brief the Foreign Secretary that Xi Jinping has never kept a climate promise, and uses the climate issue as a diplomatic bargaining chip against naive governments? Did officials fail to mention that local governments in China approved more coal power in the first quarter of 2023 than the whole of 2021? Perhaps Xi’s “no-limits” partnership with war criminal Vladimir Putin might change his mind, or the recent assertion of the Chinese ambassador to France that former Soviet republics do not enjoy sovereign status in international law? Or perhaps, on pandemic prevention (the chutzpah!) that many people are dead because of China’s cover up – something for which nobody has held them accountable. Couple that with Beijing’s forced exclusion of Taiwan from the conversation about pandemic control – despite Taipei’s clear superiority in this area – and this sentence reaches Peppa Pig levels of naivety. 

On China, we are still seemingly unable to grasp that the essential nature of the challenge. Worse, as venerated China expert and former FCDO official Charlie Parton OBE put it, we don’t even have a strategy: “Among the 24 recent and forthcoming strategies mentioned in the Integrated Review, there is no mention of a China strategy.” Not exactly reassuring. 

It is a mystery why the Foreign Secretary would devote so much energy to bashing concerned backbenchers, many of which have been personally sanctioned by China, along with their families, merely for condemning Beijing’s abuse of Uyghurs, Hong Kongers and Tibetans. Surely attacking them just shows us to be divided at the very time we need to close ranks? It’s also uncharacteristic for a person almost universally recognised for his kindness, as Cleverly is.

Or perhaps it’s not such a mystery. Rumour has it that the Foreign Secretary is planning a trip to China. If that’s true then this rhetoric may be a device to win some friends in Beijing. Against that background, throwing sanctioned MPs under the bus for things they haven’t said might have some diplomatic utility, but values-led foreign policy it ain’t.


Luke de Pulford, executive director of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China

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