China: UK policy — [Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:31 pm on 7th May 2019.

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Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Conservative, Aldershot 4:31 pm, 7th May 2019

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention. I entirely agree that, along with climate change and other important global impacts, we should certainly consider human rights when thinking about our relationship with China. I look forward to having a free and frank discussion about human rights later in the debate.

The environmental impact of the rise of China is absolutely huge. I gave the example of pork consumption because it provides quite a good mechanism for understanding the significance of the rise of China.

It is also important to understand the historical context of China’s re-emergence as a global power, and that is exactly what it is; what we have seen over the past 40 years is not the emergence of China as a global power, but the re-emergence. Until the first opium war in 1842, China was indeed a serious global player, and in Chinese eyes the century between that war and the victory of Mao Zedong in 1949 represents a century of humiliation, which they are now trying to put behind them. That is especially the case because, in addition to the degradations of the opium wars, following the first world war Chinese ports such as Qingdao were handed to the Japanese. That humiliation is keenly felt in China even today.

It is really important to understand that historical context, because it is a central part of the new doctrine of China that has replaced the quiet rise under Deng Xiaoping. The new doctrine of Xi Jinping is much more assertive and seeks to return China to what it regards as its historically rightful place as an assertive and outward-looking global power. Xi Jinping has himself describes this new era as “the Chinese dream”, not least at the 19th party congress in 2017. That must guide our thinking about China, and we therefore need to be very realistic.

The second pillar of the approach that I am proposing is therefore realism. We must be very clear and realistic in our understanding of what is driving the new doctrine of Chinese engagement with the world, because Xi Jinping, as well as seeking to return China to its historically rightful status, has reaffirmed the absolutely central role of the Chinese Communist party in the affairs of the Chinese state. This is about the party having absolute control not only domestically, but in relation to engagement abroad.

In seeking to understand the absolute priority placed on the role of the Chinese Communist party, it is useful to quote the evidence that Kevin Rudd, the former Prime Minister of Australia, gave to the Foreign Affairs Committee, which, as Members will know, recently produced an excellent report on China. Rudd, who is a noted sinologist, was talking about the central role of the party in Xi Jinping’s China. As quoted in the Committee’s report, he said:

“[W]hat are the core priorities of Xi Jinping’s Administration at home and abroad? They intersect in this institution called the Party. The interest of the Chinese political leadership is for the Party to remain in power. That is the No. 1 priority, the No. 2 priority and the No. 3 priority.”

When we consider China’s foreign policy and its engagements with the rest of the world, we need to understand the absolute priority placed on the role of the CCP. We need to bear that in mind when we understand the belt and road initiative, or Chinese defence policy and the rapid, and quite alarming, increase in that country’s naval capabilities—as a member of the Defence Committee, I have called for an inquiry into that. We also need to bear it in mind when we consider China’s treatment of Hong Kong and of Muslim Uyghurs and other minority religious groups, and its attitude towards human rights more broadly.

The absolute priority placed on the role of the CCP also drives China’s attitude towards domestic interference, which we in this country have experienced. I recommend to Members Charles Parton’s excellent report for the Royal United Services Institute. That report lays out the range of influence, moving towards interference, that China has carried out in this country, particular with regard to academia. It is certainly food for thought.

When we consider our response, we must be clear and realistic. We must ground our relations with the Chinese state in a keen understanding of the risks, as well as the opportunities, of dealing with it. Of course, there are clear benefits—we have to be very clear about that. Our commercial relationship alone is worth some £68.5 billion a year, and we should also be seeking positive relations through joint efforts to tackle climate change and deal with issues such as UN peacekeeping. There are significant positive areas that we should be focusing on; our challenge is to have the wisdom to know what is good and what is bad, and to be able to focus on the positives. We need to recognise and deal with the duality in the relationship.

We need what I call a two-handed approach. On one hand, we should be reaching out a hand of friendship, co-operation, and commercial exchange with our Chinese friends. On the other hand, we should be clearly delineating with red lines those areas that are off limits, including critical national infrastructure, over which we should have absolute sovereignty. That other hand should also call out domestic interference, if that is taking place, and call for reciprocal respectfulness. It should make clear our unwavering commitment to our own rule of law, which is not something we should ever put up for negotiation. In my view, dealing with China through our foreign policy is not a zero-sum game. We need to have nuance, flexibility and duality in our mind, which requires wisdom.

Someone who was very wise about China was, of course, Dr Henry Kissinger. He was better placed than most to understand the Chinese state. In his magnificent tome, “On China”, he calls for what he terms a “coevolution” through which China and the US, and by extension its western allies,

“pursue their domestic imperatives, cooperating where possible, and adjust their relations to minimize conflict. Neither side endorses all the aims of the other or presumes a total identity of interests, but both sides seek to identify and develop complementary interests.”

I propose that that spirit should guide our relations with China, and those of our western allies. That doctrine precludes clumsy belligerence in the South China sea and requires an energetic China policy, based on expertise, realism and wisdom.

In conclusion, I will put three direct questions to my right hon. Friend the Minister. I would be grateful if he could explain what institutional effort is being made to increase the number of Mandarin speakers and other sinologists in the Foreign Office, because that is an issue of gaining sufficient institutional expertise and capacity. I would be interested in him describing in his own words what he understands the “golden era” to mean, in terms of the duality and balance in the relationship between the UK and China. Finally, I would be grateful if he could state what Britain’s ambition is for our relationship with China in a post-Brexit world.