Why is it so difficult to talk about China?

Jenny Clegg proposes it is time to not just talk about, but also to, China

The Labour Foreign Policy Group’s report ‘China’s Place in a Progressive British Foreign Policy’ opens an utterly necessary but also difficult conversation: necessary, because co-operation with China – on world health, on nuclear proliferation, and, above all, on the climate emergency – is vital; and difficult, not least because working out how to meet the challenge of China’s rise throws into relief Britain’s diminishing influence in a changing world. This comes at a time when transatlanticism, the bedrock of Labour foreign policy, is looking somewhat less reliable with the increasing volatility of US domestic politics. 

Meanwhile, Labour’s defining spirit to serve as a moral force for good in the world has been tarnished by the past 20 years of failed wars and the devastation left behind.

In articulating a strategy of challenging, competing and co-operating with China, it is in finding the balance between the three that Labour’s liberal internationalism comes up against geopolitical reality as power shifts from West to East. For all its recognition of Britain as a medium-sized power in relative decline, the report presumes to set the agenda, a habit of imperial privilege that is evidently hard to break.

The first thing that needs to be established is the actual nature of the China challenge for Britain. It does not, as is acknowledged, pose an existential ideological threat. But nor is it a military one: different from the UK, its nuclear posture is one of ‘no first use’. Complications arise, however, with dual-use emerging technologies such as AI. Here, though, we should not give way to creeping protectionism by defining national security too widely and drawing red lines too readily.

Let’s also recall how politicised the Huawei affair became, with Boris Johnson overriding the head of GCHQ, who considered the risk was manageable. The fact that China, too, is concerned about criminal activities in the digital world offers a basis for international negotiations.  A Xi-Obama agreement on cyber security in fact had a degree of success.

More generally, however, the ‘China threat’ is cast in terms of a global struggle of democracy against autocracy, with China expanding its international influence in order to shield itself from being held to account. But by definition, it is not up to liberal democracies to set limits on the behaviour of authoritarian governments: that is up to their peoples.

There is clearly a tension between the universalism of human rights and the sovereign rights of nations. The report states baldly that China denies the universality of human rights. It is true that China has not yet ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but then neither has the US ratified the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights. China rather takes universalism as the guiding principle, whilst maintaining that sovereign countries differ in their human rights practices according to their specific historical, economic and cultural conditions. Its own practices may go against our values, but how, precisely, does this threaten our national interests?

China’s greater assertiveness in the South China Sea and over Taiwan is surely aimed at shifting the US-led regional security architecture. But why assume, along with the US critics of China cited by the report, that its long term plan is to replace the US as the dominant regional power? The logic of ‘showing China power’ to get respect is straight from the lexicon of the Pentagon and its mentality of US dominance.

From China’s perspective, US control along its coast, from military bases in Japan and South Korea to aircraft-carrier strike groups in the South China Sea, blocks its own role in the region to which it belongs. A viable alternative to reliance on US ‘policing’ of the South China Sea could be the multipolar power-sharing model of the Gulf of Aden anti-piracy mission, in which both US and Chinese forces participate.

Taiwan is the complicating factor here: a vital gateway for China to the Pacific, it is supplied by the US with advanced weaponry to reinforce its pivotal position midway along the Chinese coast. China’s claim to the island is covered clearly in the US-UK-China Cairo agreement of 1943. This validation of China’s role as a key ally in World War 2 is understood from its own perspective as an intrinsic part of the process of the ending of imperialism. Following the abrogation of the Unequal Treaties earlier in that year, the agreement marks the recognition of China’s equal status to then become a founder member of the UN. Whilst the US and UK may forget about the WW2 alliance, China cannot: its resistance against Japanese occupation cost 16 million lives and more.

Depending on whether the claim to Taiwan is deemed legitimate, as indeed it is by the UN, China may be judged an expansionist bully or a defensive power responding tit-for-tat. And whereas bullies must be confronted, tit-for-tat tactics are amenable to negotiation.

How to interpret China’s behaviour is the difficulty. For all its efforts to avoid adversarialism and oppose the ‘Red Scare’ mentality, the report still falls for the ‘debt trap diplomacy’ myth, cited as a further example of China’s damaging behaviour, despite the thorough debunking of the arguments by the Johns Hopkins China Africa Research Initiative.

And what about China’s ‘bullying’ of Australia? Was this simply a response to Scott Morrison’s call to investigate the origin of the Wuhan virus, or was China’s hostility aroused because the call was being linked to a demand for reparations, echoing the colonial imposition of the Boxer Indemnity? 

The charge of Uyghur genocide could not be more serious. A most scrupulous consideration of evidence should weigh the claim that, for example, greater restrictions on family size to two or three children – the one child family policy was never applied to national minorities – was imposed in response to shifts in the population-land ratio caused by desertification.

So, to recommendations: the strategy is to maintain a critical yet constructive dialogue with China whilst seeking to de-escalate global tensions. But how are these to be concretised?

Seeking closer relations with Europe as a way of balancing US-China tensions is eminently sensible. But, in real terms, can Europe’s ‘strategic autonomy’ be realised within the security frame of NATO? And on the proposal of working in alliance with other democracies in the Indo-Pacific, the exclusion of authoritarian regimes may foster divisions in ASEAN whilst risking the alienation of Singapore, a long-standing partner in the UK-led regional five-power defence arrangement.

Meanwhile, support for AUKUS would lend legitimacy to what is seen within the region as an intervention from outside, potentially displacing ASEAN’s role in promoting Asian solutions to Asian problems. And would Britain really have leverage in moderating US and Australian hawks within the pact? Why not work together with ASEAN as a whole to build a third way between the two superpowers?

Again, undoubtedly sensible is the suggestion to rebuild our credibility in the developing world. Developing countries, as is recognised, increasingly see China as a positive factor in the world. But to take competition with China as the driving factor for Labour to improve assistance in the Global South, rather than doing this as a matter of course, is a rather sad state of affairs.

Clearly it is a big ask to formulate a China policy as just one aspect of a foreign policy yet to be fully articulated. Foreign policy should serve domestic needs, and how co-operation with China might serve economic growth, social justice and environmental protection must be brought into the picture. At the moment, China is our third-largest market for exports, generating at least 150,000 jobs across the country. Again, how much of this would we wish to put at risk through punitive actions?

For sure, China has taken an authoritarian turn, and human rights issues are not to be discounted. But the point is not to end up, as historian Rana Mitter puts it, just “shouting into the void”. Positive interactions are likely to have more effect. The recent Great Britain China Centre roundtable on the prevention of child sex abuse, cited in the report, is but one example. Consider, too, the thousands of Chinese students passing through our universities, some even with degrees in law and in journalism. It is not as if China is not seeking to improve human rights bit by bit, not only in social and economic terms but with more media diversity and reforms to the legal system rising up the agenda.

Viewed through another lens, China’s concern is to gain equal status in an international order largely shaped in the interests of the richer nations. Western governments need to take on board now that ‘the other side gets a vote’. Appreciating China’s point of view and building trust helps. The report, though not perhaps as well-informed as it might be, has at least opened the door to discussion.

However, the case for co-operation is yet to be won in the party. Coming at a time when feelings over China’s human rights abuses are running high, despite its critical approach, the report has already been charged as ‘too soft on China’. The ‘China all bad’ narrative must not now be allowed to overwhelm debate; conditions for rational dialogue need to be created. At the same time, those who call for Labour to learn the lessons of failed wars, who reject military solutions, and who voted against AUKUS at the last annual conference, should not be ignored. 

Input from Labour-controlled councils with years of experience in sister city links, as well as from business and the universities, will help more concretely in identifying the spaces for co-operation as well as the challenges of engagement.

And we should not only be talking about China but talking to China – this dialogue needs to start now.


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