Replacing the ‘Golden Age’ Policy Towards China

Chinese President Xi Jinping with Queen Elizabeth II at a state banquet at Buckingham Palace, London. Courtesy of Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/PA Images.

If the UK ever did enjoy a ‘golden age’ with China, it is emphatically over now. The escalating anxiety about Western dependency on Huawei was in some ways but a harbinger of the present crisis.

The question for the UK, and indeed the entire West (if such a construct exists), is what new policies or positions are we to adopt towards China?

First, there is the question of our perspectives. As Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads makes clear, our thinking about our place in the world and its history is often distorted. The very fact some call China ‘the Far East’ reflects that, causing so much of our daily politics to procrastinate the need to understand and to respond more coherently to what China is and is becoming. Democracies like Australia and Japan, who have China as a near neighbour, have been compelled to give this more consideration. They experience modern China’s growing habit of claiming exclusive control over new spheres of influence more directly, such as in the South China Sea. 

Still, our narrative and that of our allies is reactive. We feel China’s predatory trade and technological policy, its protectionism, the effects of massive state involvement in commerce and industry, and the state’s repressive attitude to human rights in a way some countries do not. Some feel less vulnerable about what they could lose by engagement with China – they see only benefit in the form of cheaper communications and pharmaceuticals by breaking from the control of north European and US governments and corporations. Developing countries, in particular, are tired of our moral superiority about democracy and human rights, making China a far less demanding international partner for some. We should remind ourselves that the vast majority of states, including two permanent members of the UN Security Council, regard what we call ‘the rules-based international order’ as not much more than another imposition: a historical accident, arising from the roles played by the British and American governments in securing victory alongside their allies in the Second World War.

Today, our media is full of blame against China for the coronavirus crisis. Unsurprisingly, this has not proved to be of much help in finding a new way to define a workable and sustainable relationship with China. The aggressive tone has provoked Chinese diplomatic aggression in response, with Chinese diplomats overtly promoting the cult of the ‘wolf warrior’ in their diplomatic corp.

Now, former Foreign Secretary William Hague has joined the debate.* He should not be tainted by association with the former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne’s ‘golden age’ policy and the lauding of China’s ‘belt and road’ initiative, notwithstanding the fact that he was a member of the same Cabinet. It post-dated his 2010–14 period as foreign secretary, and in any case, it was the Treasury which bounced the rest of government into this policy. This became clear to me during a private seminar on the pivot to China which I hosted under the auspices of the Commons Public Administration Select Committee, as much of the rest of government was far less comfortable with the sudden and epic shift in policy.

Hague has pointed out three things: how the coronavirus crisis shows every sign of working to China’s geopolitical advantage because its economy will recover more quickly; that President Donald Trump is not providing global leadership; and that there is a risk that China will exploit the increase of surveillance we use for tracking and tracing. While he does see China suffering global ‘reputational damage’, even he offers no clear path forward. 

What is To Be Done?

There are three pleas I would make about policy toward China.

The first is about the need to develop strategic patience to match their long game, and a far greater capacity for strategic thinking for the long term. This is something I have long championed – the Commons committee I chaired for nine years did five reports on strategic thinking in government.

The capacity to think strategically is not a function of the size of a state; if Israel or Singapore can develop strategic thinking, then so can we. National strategy is about imagining possibilities, testing them in different scenarios, and keeping open minds to new ideas and challenge.  It is not about adopting a single plan – it is also about looking for strengths and opportunities to exploit, not just focusing on our weaknesses and threats (as the more limited National Security Strategy does).

Second, we do need the reappraisal which many are talking about – the need to diversify our supply chains away from just China. This is already happening. The narrative that treats the Huawei decision as purely a ‘market failure’ seems to be a means of avoiding what has been a strategic failure. China has always intended for Huawei to acquire monopoly status; to subsidise and to protect Huawei, to enable it to build up presence and dependency in target markets in order to deter international competitors. 

We have been so captured by our own narrative about the benefits of free trade that we have lost sight of the importance of what those in Defence call ‘on-shore capability’. In this case, ‘on-shore’ should mean either in the UK or in partnership with close allies. The same goes for personal protective equipment, which China’s clumsy attempts to exploit with overpriced and underspecified kit during the ongoing pandemic has again demonstrated. To label these as just ‘market failure’ is a denial of the relevance of China’s own strategic mindset and what they are seeking to achieve. It shows we lack a strategic mindset of our own. 

We should regard Huawei and our vulnerability to China’s new diplomatic forcefulness not just as an emblem of the failure of UK strategic thinking, but of the whole of the West. For all their hostility to Huawei, even the US failed to recognise the need to develop indigenous 5G technology as an alternative and is now signing an international agreement on 5G standards that includes Huawei. On 15 May, the US Department of Commerce announced that it will amend export control rules and will ‘narrowly and strategically target Huawei’s acquisition of semi-conductors’. At the same time, Huawei has warned that its survival ‘is at stake’.

Third, we must avoid mindless demonisation of China. Future strategy should not shrink from finding the direct causes of the pandemic, or from China’s initial failure to contain the infection. We should recognise that wet markets – to which the coronavirus outbreak has been linked – have been part of Asian culture for thousands of years. That is not to say they are not a risk, but China’s refusal to consider an international and impartial investigation into the causes of its failures shows it cannot bear too much truth.

We can show courage in our willingness to learn in an open way from our own failings. It would be a mistake to underestimate China’s constant learning – though it may not be done openly, the whole pattern of its development has come from this. It observes the West all the time, learning what works and what doesn’t, and improves its own development accordingly.

We need to understand the Chinese tendency for deception, and how this is embedded in the nature of the Chinese state. Remember, for example, the Sanlu baby milk powder scandal. We know that the local government in Wuhan acted to suppress news about the coronavirus outbreak in a similar fashion. Li Wenliang, the Chinese doctor who died from the disease after warning colleagues about its dangers, was interrogated and threatened with prosecution by local police for ‘spreading rumours’ within days of posting messages to social media. Only later, after his death, did the Chinese Communist Party officially exonerate Li of any wrongdoing and elevate him as a hero.

What Can’t Be Done

All this underlines the need to comprehend the complexity of China. Their determination to resist an independent, international coronavirus investigation – except by the World Health Organization, which is subject to China’s influence – is another manifestation of their need to show one another that the days of the Western governments setting China’s agenda are over. And we need to accept this certainty.

This is the context for the re-evaluation of our engagement with China. Even if the West were united and adopted a coherent policy (and there is no sign of that unity now), the ability to impose our direct will on the world’s second-largest economy is limited. The Chinese state cannot allow its people to see its legitimacy challenged by accepting responsibility for a global pandemic. So, the very idea of inviting the Chinese government to some form of arbitration by institutions they regard as hostile is naïve.

Furthermore, the imposition of sanctions is completely unrealistic. The West cannot hide from the fact that we have already encouraged China to put itself at the centre of a nexus of international supply chains – trade in goods between China, the EU and the UK is worth more than $600 billion per year, and an equivalent volume of trade occurs with the US. Rapidly disrupting this would incur huge further costs on top of those already caused by the present crisis. 

Unless we want a world based around economic and political tensions between China and the Western world, we must find a way to coexist peacefully. We must work with China to help them root out the petty corruption and inefficiencies within the regional branches of its state. Last year, China scored 41 out of 100 in Transparency International’s Corruptions Perceptions Index – essentially unchanged from when Xi Jinping took office.

Our policy must be one of engagement with vigilance, that starts by aiming to replace China’s derision for the West’s short-termism and disunity, among other failings. These reforms are in China’s interests as well as ours. In the long run, we must accept the need to match China’s long perspective and develop the strategic patience to pursue the idea that its prosperity and cooperation are indivisible from our own prosperity and security.

Sir Bernard Jenkin MP is a Conservative Member of Parliament for Harwich and North Essex.

* In addition to his other current duties, Lord Hague of Richmond also serves as RUSI’s Chairman.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.



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