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China is a force for order, but not liberal order

4 April 2019

A new report from the Foreign Affairs Committee says the UK needs to recalibrate its policy towards China to fully acknowledge the consolidation of power in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party under President Xi Jinping.

In China and the rules-based international system, the Foreign Affairs Committee says China is seeking a role in the world commensurate with its growing economic power, and the United Kingdom should welcome China's desire to participate in global governance.

China: viable partner but active challenger

However, Chinese foreign policy is shaped by the need to serve the interests and perceived legitimacy of the Communist Party. This makes China a viable partner for the UK on some issues, but an active challenger on others.  The current framework of UK policy towards China reflects an unwillingness to face this reality.

The Report says that the UK's current approach to China risks prioritising economic considerations over other interests, values and national security. If the Government had not already committed in rhetorical terms to a "Golden Era" in UK-Chinese relations, the Committee questions whether it would be appropriate to do so now.

Set out UK strategy on China

The Committee calls for the Government to develop a single, detailed, public document defining the UK's China strategy, crafted via a cross-Government process led by senior Ministers and directed by the FCO. This should be published by the end of 2020.

Chair's comments

The Chair of the Committee, Tom Tugendhat MP, said:

"The UK's relationship with China is important to the British people. In this inquiry, we've been trying to understand China's approach to international laws, norms, rules and institutions, and in turn to understand what this means for the UK. What we've found is that the current framework of UK policy towards China reflects an unwillingness to face the reality of China's strategic direction.

"We have grounds for concern about Huawei's involvement in the UK's 5G infrastructure. We heard allegations about attempted interference in the UK's domestic affairs and the impact the treatment of the Uighur-Muslim population and other minorities in China's Xinjiang province could have in stirring up resentment that could affect other countries including us, here in the UK.

"We must recognise that there are hard limits to what cooperation can achieve; that the values and interests of the Chinese Communist Party, and therefore the Chinese state, are often very different from those of the United Kingdom; and that the divergence of values and interests fundamentally shapes China's worldview. This doesn't mean that the Government should seek confrontation with China - or abandon cooperation.

"We do think that a constructive, pragmatic and often positive UK relationship with China is possible. Indeed, it's essential. But achieving this will require strategy, rigour and unity in place of hope and muddling through."

Committee recommendations

The Committee lays out key questions that the UK's new China strategy must answer. In addition to this, the Committee makes recommendations on several specific topics.

The Committee calls on the Government to:

  • Take a strictly case-by-case approach to projects under China's Belt and Road Initiative, and not sign a Memorandum of Understanding in support of the BRI.
  • Continue to exercise freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, but make a statement clarifying the purpose and legal basis of future UK naval operations there.
  • Not permit core principles, such as freedom of navigation and the rights of countries to form alliances, to become a matter for negotiation in economic dialogue with China.
  • Encourage the United States and China to focus on the protection of the integrity of the global trade regime, including reciprocal market access, in their trade negotiations.
  • Respond to China's attempts to subvert international human rights mechanisms, and support UN efforts to investigate the extremely concerning situation in Xinjiang.
  • Conduct a “lessons-learned” exercise across Government examining successes and failures in shifting Chinese positions on specific policy issues.
  • Continue to speak out in support of Hong Kong's autonomy, which the Committee believes is at risk.
  • Be cautious about the involvement of Chinese companies in any aspect of UK critical national infrastructure, including telecommunications.
  • Assess whether the Chinese government, or individuals or entities acting on behalf of the Chinese government, have improperly interfered, or attempted to interfere, in the UK's political institutions and processes, the rule of law, UK media or UK academia, and set out what it is doing to counter such interference, or the prospect of it.

Further information

Image: PA