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Enticing the Tiger from its lair

Commentary, 23 January 2009
Europe, Pacific
The UK’s first ever government document on the UK-China relationship aims to prepare British diplomacy for a new phase in China’s development as a rising power. In doing so, Britain must tread carefully as it helps China to become an important multilateral partner in international security.

The UK’s first ever government document on the UK-China relationship aims to prepare British diplomacy for a new phase in China’s development as a rising power. In doing so, Britain must tread carefully as it helps China to be an important multilateral partner in international security.

By Alexander Neill, Head, Asia Security Programme, RUSI

The Foreign Secretary David Miliband was in Manchester on Thursday 22 January to launch the first ever UK government document to lay down an approach for the UK's relationship with China. Entitled ‘The UK and China: A framework for engagement’, the document encapsulates a strategic review of Sino-British relations that has been undertaken by the British government over the last year and will shape British foreign policy over the next four years.

A product of a Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) initiative endorsed by a Cabinet Office committee last summer, this document is designed to create a pan-Whitehall approach to China and is the first ever focused expression of purpose to this end. The FCO initiative is obviously a response to the increasingly well co-ordinated, adroit and sophisticated Chinese diplomatic campaigns in areas in which the UK has vested interest and where, increasingly, British diplomacy is being eclipsed by Chinese influence.

Importantly, the document asserts that the economic well-being of the UK is inextricably linked to that of China, and that the UK must be equipped to make the most of China’s rise. The core tenets of the strategy are as follows:

• Engagement with China is a necessity, not an option - for the whole European Union

• In the current economic crisis openness, not a retreat into protectionism, is the only way to beat recession

• The UK will continue to focus on human rights in China

• The only sustainable form of economic growth is low-carbon growth and the only sustainable recovery is a low-carbon recovery

• In meeting the Millennium Development goals, China must be encouraged to promote good governance and transparency

• The UK will instigate a nationwide drive to promote learning about China’s people, language, culture and history.

The strategy document highlights 2009 as a year of anniversaries for China and lauds China’s achievements. The thirtieth anniversary of economic reforms in China, the Beijing Olympics and China’s first space walk all serve to demonstrate that China has ‘come of age’ in terms of economic and technological development.

Dealing with instability

However, beneath the veneer of praise, British policy makers are perturbed by the potential for social and economic instability in China in 2009 and its consequences for Europe. Though China will celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic this year, 2009 is also the fiftieth anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s flight from Lhasa and the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen incident.

The Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Hu Jintao and his right-hand man Premier Wen Jiabao will undoubtedly face challenges to their party campaigns, not least because of global recession. Hu Jintao has recently asserted that the measure of success for the party will not be to strive for economic growth but rather to prevent instability.

Last year demonstrated that China’s core security concern is its territorial integrity. This translates to the Tibet, Taiwan and Xinjiang separatist movements. 2009 will be a period of introspection for China and the Communist Party will prioritise party legitimacy over all else. Preventing instability will be the top of the politburo’s agenda, especially with the global recession taking effect in China.

China’s production sector has suffered enormously as demand for Chinese exports has slumped over the last quarter. Hundreds of factories have been closed down within China’s special economic zones. Hundreds of thousands of laid off workers will be returning home empty handed for the Chinese Spring Festival next week. The UK would like to see China taking some measures to support the global economic system, not just its domestic interests.

The British government has calculated that China will be able to weather the economic storm and that, four years from now, the UK and EU’s economic integrity will be dependent on economic success for China. Furthermore, the economic rapprochement across the Taiwan Strait engineered by Taiwan’s ruling party the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party promises new opportunities.

Initiating British Leadership in Sino-European Engagement

The timing of the British statement is important. It comes directly after the Obama inauguration and before Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to Europe, at the beginning of a very sensitive year for China. The message will also be directed at China’s next generation leadership, in anticipation of the Chinese Communist Party leadership handover in 2012.

In launching the new strategy, the UK is announcing an intention to take the lead in Sino-European engagement: to breathe oxygen into battered relations between Brussels and Beijing at a time when Sino-EU relations are frayed at the edges. China viewed Sarkozy’s decision to meet the Dalai Lama during France’s presidency of the EU as ‘crossing the red line’, and as a result cancelled the December 2008 EU-China summit in Lyon.

While Sarkozy chose to ignore the Chinese red line etched over the EU summit, David Miliband was crafting a ‘face-saver’ for Beijing in a carefully considered piece of diplomatic risk management. As a delegation of Tibetan negotiators were meeting Chinese officials in Beijing in the vain hope of attaining autonomy for Tibet, Miliband decided to formally reiterate recognition of Tibet as the sovereign territory of the People’s Republic of China.

Commentators on both sides of the Atlantic have accused Miliband of gambling away political concessions – which have been pocketed promptly by Beijing – and getting very little in exchange. Nevertheless, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao will be visiting Europe at the end of the month and will meet Prime Minister Gordon Brown but has pointedly side stepped a visit to France.

The UK’s new strategy is also aimed at seeking China’s support within the permanent membership of the UN’s Security Council. In particular, the UK will be seeking Chinese support for a strong P5 statement resonant of the ‘Global Zero’ movement’s aspirations at the 2010 Nuclear Proliferation Treaty Review Conference. The UK’s policy is to encourage China as a responsible global player. This means getting the Chinese more involved in international security, peace support operations, humanitarian missions and countering non-traditional threats. Of these issues, climate change remains a core objective, with an ambitious deal in Copenhagen later this year in preparation.

By stepping into the breach, the UK is taking the risk that China will set political conditions for any economic concessions it gives to Europe and the UK. China has demonstrated that it will act on its own terms if its national sovereignty is challenged, and international leaders must think carefully about this when asking favours from China. It is no coincidence that China chose to release its biennial defence white paper on the day of Obama’s inauguration.

Sino-US military relations are currently on hold after the US agreed a $6.5 million arms package to Taiwan. Both the US and the EU maintain an arms embargo on China, twenty years after the Tiananmen incident of 1989. Beijing understands that European countries have much to lose in their relations with China. During the current economic storm, the Tiger will need to be enticed from its lair with caution.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI. 

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