There’s an old joke about a lost traveller asking how to reach their destination. The local they stop helpfully tells them: “If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.” The foreign secretary made it to Beijing on Wednesday, but finds himself in something of the same situation when it comes to China policy. In a report published the same day, the foreign affairs committee rightly diagnosed a lack of coherence in the UK government’s approach to date. James Cleverly began from an unenviable position.
For too long, the west was complacent in assuming that economic opening up would bring a friendlier, more politically helpful China. But the UK’s specific original sin was George Osborne’s declaration of a “golden era” of Sino-British relations. The then chancellor made it clear that human rights and other considerations were not so much a distant second to doing business as off the table altogether. China’s subsequent actions and rhetoric made that embrace look naive as well as unethical. The rethink on allowing investment and involvement in critical infrastructure was a necessary corrective. But Liz Truss’s reckless, hawkish posturing is also ill-judged.
The wider context is a world in rapid flux. US-China relations have hit new lows, and major players, particularly in Europe, are struggling to recalibrate dealings with a more forceful and hostile Beijing, and rethink broader assumptions. As the European foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell told EU ambassadors last autumn, “our prosperity was based on China and Russia – energy and market … we delegated our security to the United States … This is a world that is no longer there.” Should Donald Trump return to the White House, matters will become more precarious. As president, he made US policy towards Beijing much more hawkish, but also indicated that issues from tech export controls to the future of Taiwan were bargaining chips for a trade deal.
Mr Cleverly says that a pragmatic relationship with China is needed. The issue is not merely economic (though £107.5bn in bilateral trade makes China the UK’s fourth-largest trading partner, and Chinese investors own £152bn in UK assets). As the foreign secretary pointed out in a speech this spring, “no significant global problem – from climate change to pandemic prevention, from economic instability to nuclear proliferation – can be solved without China”. Yet he also clearly identified Beijing’s “ruthless authoritarian tradition” and warned that “repression at home often translates into aggression abroad”.
The question now is how the UK implements that approach. As the foreign affairs committee rightly identified in Wednesday’s report, it is baffling that the China strategy drawn up by the Foreign Office is not available even to senior ministers or civil servants in other government departments – let alone other public and private bodies that ought to be guided by it – due to its security classification. A public, unclassified version would give them the guidance they need. Better understanding is needed of the risks posed by Chinese equipment used in infrastructure. And as Beijing pushes harder to silence criticism abroad, the UK should be especially clear that it will not tolerate transnational repression.
In reality, an increasingly doctrinaire and isolationist Beijing is less willing than ever to listen to challenges, let alone be swayed. Modest successes are likely to come only where it sees shared interests. Measures such as strengthening people-to-people contact are welcome – but hard to effect when leaders are increasingly hostile to outside influence. Britain will need to work more effectively with countries with shared values and priorities. It must also ensure that it not only states its standards clearly, but upholds them at home too. Improving the government’s strategy on China is not hard. Putting those improvements into practice will be.