ARE we about to enter into a Cold War with China? A hawkish faction on the Conservative back benches is pressing the Government to take a harder line on the issue. Their argument is clear and, to some, persuasive.
China already controls too much of the British economy. Entrusting our 5G telecoms system, and new nuclear plants, to Chinese companies will give Beijing the ability to pull the plug on vital British infrastructure. Then, in Hong Kong, the Chinese Communist Party is introducing security laws to limit freedom of speech — in breach of the “one country, two systems” formula that was supposed to remain in force for 50 years after Britain handed back the territory to Beijing. And there are the longstanding human-rights violations among the Uighur Muslims (News, 15 November 2019), subjected to forced labour and forced sterilisation.
The counter-argument is that, at a time when we are attenuating our links with our biggest trading partner — the European Union — we should not be creating tensions with China, which is Britain’s third largest trading and investment partner after the EU and the United States.
How are we to pick a way through this geopolitical minefield? Things have not been made clearer by the bellicose noises from Washington, now being echoed by Tory backbenchers; nor has the Chinese ambassador to the UK helped with his thinly veiled threat that “China wants to be [the] UK’s friend and partner. But if you treat China as a hostile country, you would have to bear the consequences.” He sounded like the oleaginous villain from a Bond movie.
But rhetoric can be the enemy of sensible decision-making. On human rights, the Government has taken the correct line in acknowledging the obligations that we have to the people of Hong Kong, by offering three million of them British passports as an exit strategy if things get too unpleasant.
The infrastructure issue is more complex. The British military and security Establishment insist that there is no threat to using Huawei to implement the next generation of British telecoms, so long as they are kept out of certain danger areas. But the new US sanctions on Huawei have raised questions about the ability of the Chinese tech giant to deliver the project as efficiently as before. It is sensible for Downing Street to be rethinking the issue, although Boris Johnson’s hint that China might now be seen as a “hostile state vendor” suggests that keeping President Trump sweet, and not the economics, may now be his dominant concern.
We should beware a false dichotomy here. The choice is not between China’s being an enemy and being a friend. When David Cameron and George Osborne tried the latter, it was faintly embarrassing. The kowtow does not win favours; it merely assigns you a subordinate position from which you will never recover, as one China-watcher put it.
But, if China is neither a friend nor an enemy, it can be a business partner — in areas where the benefits are mutual rather than one-sided — and a partner with whom we can have frank conversations about human rights. If Britain reverted to holding a more strategic view of our relations with China, instead of see-sawing between the kowtow and the finger wag, we might be more effective when we spoke truth to power.
Read more about this story in Andrew Brown’s press column this week