Philip Mitchell and Chris Goddard: We need game-changing strategies to meet the challenge of China

15 Apr

By Chris Goddard and Philip Mitchell are both members of the Lewes Conservative Political Forum.

The West has been full of righteous indignation about supposed excesses in the Peoples’ Republic of China, from the treatment of the Uighurs and the ending of democracy in Hong Kong, to the threat to Taiwan and the spat between China and Australia.

The Biden Administration has had its eyes and ears opened wide recently by the Chinese tirade at the Alaskan conference with the US National Security Adviser. But these are faraway actions so far as the UK is concerned, prompting no more than the usual ritual warnings from Dominic Raab about “unacceptable behaviour”.

The game has changed. Not only has the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued its fatwa against certain Westminster MPs for speaking out about alleged human rights abuses, but the country’s chief cyber regulator has now announced that it will sanction any online criticism of the Communist regime and encourage internet users worldwide to snitch on others who “deny the excellence of advanced socialist culture”.

That is perfectly capable of extending to words uttered in the UK. So there we have it: Big Brother, in the form of a dragon, has finally arrived.

Much ink has been spilt on the question of what the West’s, and indeed the UK’s, response to China should be: a boycott of goods;  a refusal to import communications or nuclear technology; a blocking of outward intellectual property transfers; the offer of refuge to displaced citizens of Hong Kong?

All these are knee jerk reactions and all miss the essential truth: that the Peoples’ Republic has become the second world power and intends to pursue its agenda of international domination by whatever means are available. Our sitting like King Canute on the edge of the waves, commanding that the tide rise no further, has a distinctly outmoded ring to it.

Since with two exceptions the rest of the world are minnows swimming in these dangerous waters, how can the West and in particular, Britain, respond in any meaningful way? Joe Biden has just proposed one of them, and we can be a champion for the other: out-compete and form alliances.

The US’s idea, a far cry from Trump’s tariffs and protectionism, is that financial muscle in the West can out-perform Chinese technology and manufacture and make enhanced strategic investment in countries where China currently “colonises” by means of loans and infrastructure projects. The second strand, international alliances, must necessarily draw in developing countries sympathetic to democratic values whose chief assets are their burgeoning industry, scarce raw materials, and populations. The greatest of these is India, whose population even now matches China and by 2050 will exceed it by a predicted 237 million, according to Worldometer.

Of a telephone conversation to Boris Johnson on 27th March , President Biden recounted: “we talked about China and the competition they’re engaging in in the Belt and Road initiative. And I suggested we should have, essentially, a similar initiative coming from the democratic states, helping those communities around the world.”

By “those communities” it is assumed he meant those African and South American states where soft power intervention is achieved by aid programmes rather than military presence. American policy in a number of key areas presently rests on vague pronouncements to spend trillions of extra dollars in pursuance of democratic ideals of the “public good”. Whether these will materialise remains to be seen, but America alone has the reach and resources to stretch out in this way.

Other countries, including the UK, debt-ridden by Covid-19 for the foreseeable future, cannot compete in this league. What, then, can Britain do?

Many have argued that the reduction in spending on overseas aid is a hammer-blow to soft power overseas. It need not be so. The mass of trade deals skilfully negotiated by Liz Truss will enable many poorer countries to offer their natural products to Britain. on favourable terms. We can also afford to be generous with the roll out of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which Europe now despises, bearing in mind that the Chinese vaccine has been officially announced to be of “low efficacy” at around 50 per cent (although one wonders whether the hapless official who made that announcement will ever be seen in public again).

China is donating millions of jabs to its client states and there is no reason why the UK should not do the same. We can also import more goods from Japan, Taiwan and South Korea and less from China. Although our £30 billion worth of yearly exports to the Peoples’ Republic must not be thrown away, our most precious export is our democratic way of life, the rule of law, and the cry of freedom.

Yet it is the area of diplomacy that Britain could take a leading role in equalising relations between states and moderating China’s world dominance, and preferably putting it on a less aggressive footing. This centres round the idea that you do not want to fight on too many fronts. While China may feel able to bully its smaller neighbours, particularly Australia, over commodity supplies and purchase of territory, a counter-alliance which includes the US, Japan, Brazil, Nigeria, and above all India, all highly populous countries in the Western sphere, orchestrated from London, would be a force to contend with.

Container ships, not cutlasses, would be the weapon of choice. There could be a standing council comprised of senior representatives of participating states, taking joint action against belligerence wherever it occurs.

The aim must surely be to recognise China for the superpower it is, with its long history of culture and achievement, but to seek to persuade its leadership that the path to greatness lies in co-operation in key areas in which all humankind has a profound interest: better standards of living, addressing climate change, the conservation of scarce resources, medical advances for everybody, and the empowerment of women to slow population growth. These are not contentious goals, and they do not need to be fought over.

There is one area where Britain alone is in a position to prevent disaster: the displaced people of Hong Kong, who are seeing their democratic future under the 1997 Two Systems treaty dismantled before their eyes. Last year the Foreign Secretary rightly made an open-ended commitment to dual passport holders to allow residence over here, a decision is self-evidently justified on moral and economic grounds. There are, however no discernible practical steps to assimilate the numbers who are estimated to want to come: half a million at the least, three million at the most.

Where are these people to go in our crowded island and shouldn’t we be taking steps now to facilitate their welcome arrival? What a beautiful solution to a raging problem – let the Chinese become British.

Philip Mitchell and Chris Goddard: 2020 was a reality check on China. Trade offers opportunities for the UK to assert its values.

15 Feb

Chris Goddard and Philip Mitchell are both members of Lewes Conservative Political Forum.

2020 provided a reality check in relation to China: no longer was it enough to promise, as the Cameron and May administrations had done, that Britain was “open for business” and that unpleasant features of Chinese nationalism could be overlooked because of trade. The scaling back of Huawei technology by Johnson provided a foretaste of a harder-edged response to growing Chinese influence throughout the world coupled with a realisation that, while trade normalises relations, it does not cure aggression or safeguard human rights.

Three events in particular have bought that reality into sharp focus. First, the introduction of the Hong Kong security law as an excuse to snuff out the remnants of democracy in that beleaguered territory has made plain that China regards any interference in its “internal affairs” as illegitimate and indeed worthy of denunciation – so-called “wolf warrior diplomacy”.

Second, as Nus Ghani has recently pointed out in these pages, there is increasing evidence that China has committed genocide and crimes against humanity in its repression of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, prompting the US already to take punitive action in the form of its Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act.

The UK’s response has so far been limited to outbursts of righteous indignation from the Foreign Secretary. Ghani has (unsuccessfully) proposed that the current Trade Bill includes a provision whereby trade with nations can be restrained by the courts if genocide is adjudged to have taken place.

Third we have the widely reported news that Ofcom has revoked the broadcasting licence of the CGTN – the overseas division of Chinese Central Television – on the grounds that, contrary to the conditions of its licence, CGTN is not an independent entity but is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party and echoes its political line (for instance on Hong Kong).

It’s ironical that this move emanates from a mere regulatory body rather than any grave political decision, and yet it is likely to cause the most damage in future relations. This is because China does not recognise that administrators can act independently of governments and a political motive is automatically attributed.

A crucial dilemma has thus arisen for UK policy makers: is it right to call out China for its alleged abuses, being prepared to countenance a period of diplomatic deep freeze of a sort currently existing with Putin’s Russia? Or do we have to accept that the Chinese are likely to respond actively to what they see as hostility, and likely damage the substantial trading relationship which the two countries currently enjoy?

Trade and Environment

As for UK-China trade, the UK imports £49 billion worth of Chinese goods while China imports from the UK £31 billion. While this is a substantial figure and the imbalance does not seem outrageous, it should be remembered that the population difference between the two countries means that the UK per capita amount is approximately £1,500 while for China it is only £25.

Ordinary consumers are not necessarily aware of this – and perhaps they don’t care – as although packaging will show the country of origin, there is no such requirement with online sales. At a time when the UK is urgently looking to improve its trading relationships with countries beyond the EU, is it sensible to risk this massive trade?

Also, if Britain is serious about net zero emissions, it must export pollution to manufacturing countries such as China to reach its targets. The choice is either to abandon those targets, unpalatable with COP26 imminent, or accept ever greater overseas dependence.

Recent Assertiveness

China has always needed overseas trade to sustain its double-digit annual growth but counterparties have become wary of sharp practices, such as appropriation of intellectual property and distortion of markets by selling at uneconomic prices. A current example is the sale unto the UK of MG electric cars. China now owns this former British brand and offers attractive models at prices with which other manufacturers could not reasonably compete.

Not only has it financed many infrastructure projects in developing counties with grants or loans at attractive rates, but China has increased its influence in organisations such as the UN and the WHO by agreeing to fund projects which increase its profile or directly benefit its Belt and Road programme .

This assertiveness has become increasingly political. The example of Hong Kong has already been given, for which the suppression of freedom in Tibet is the now-forgotten forerunner. Displays of military might in the South China Sea are of concern to its immediate neighbours. Australia and China are at serious loggerheads over various issues, with China openly faking pictures of Australian soldiers harming children in order to punish Canberra over trade embargo threats. There is no subtlety in its recent diplomacy.

Action Together

China is a proud country and is replacing Russia as a superpower. No country including the UK can afford to treat it as a pariah state. Yet the continuance of trade offers opportunities for criticism and negotiation provided the West stands together to call out abuses. With its economy faltering, the CCP will arguably not want to fight on too many fronts. While the UN, WHO and WTO are unlikely to be effective vehicles for moderation, the UK can utilise its post-Brexit freedoms and bilateral trade alliances to provide support to countries who want to stand up to Beijing. What it cannot do is act alone, a paper tiger in a post-Imperial world.