It is a great pleasure to follow Leo Docherty, who made an excellent case and covered quite a lot of areas I would like to cover.
I want to declare an interest: I went to China through the all-party parliamentary China group, although that was in September 2017, so it was a long time ago. As a result, I formed the all-party parliamentary group for the belt and road initiative and China-Pakistan economic corridor, which is working hard to get UK businesses involved in the multitrillion-dollar belt and road initiative.
I appreciate that the subject of this debate is wide ranging, but I will limit my remarks to the issue of international trade policy. The key question for UK trade policy towards China is how best to engage with the belt and road initiative, which is China’s signature foreign policy. Last week, I chaired a panel discussion on Britain, Brexit and the belt and road initiative. As we prepare to leave the world’s single largest trading bloc, I asked how post-Brexit Britain should respond to China’s BRI, the world’s biggest ongoing infrastructure project. If Britain is to take a lead as an upholder of the multilateral, rule-based system, we need to be asking ourselves that question. Estimates of China’s intended investment in the BRI range from $1 trillion to $8 trillion; it is a project on an unprecedented scale, yet UK awareness and understanding of it are very limited.
At the belt and road forum two years ago, the Chancellor described the UK as a “natural partner” in that project. It is true that this country is well placed to complement that initiative. There is a lot of scope for the UK’s strong legal, professional and technical services sectors to support the delivery of BRI projects. Britain also has deep historical ties with China, as well as with key BRI partner countries, such as Pakistan. A project of that scale needs international co-operation and partnership, which is something we are well placed to provide. However, our international co-operation must be tied to a commitment to uphold human rights, as well as social and environmental protections. The hon. Member for Aldershot mentioned the Uyghur community in north-west China, as well as the significant role that China can play in climate change. That is really important.
Too often, we are offered two competing visions of China: the paranoid western image of China as a threat to the global order, often endorsed by advocates of Trump’s protectionism, or the image of China as a benevolent state, which is promoted by its state officials. If we are to cut through those narratives, we need to strengthen our multilateral institutions.
At the heart of the BRI is a spirit of mutual co-operation, but China can best embody that spirit by acting with more transparency, embedded in the rules-based international order. The UK can be at the forefront of that order by acting as a strong, independent voice on the global stage. In doing so, we can reject the failed doctrines of free trade orthodoxy and Trump’s tariff wars, to promote a just trade agenda.
In an era when unilateralism and protectionism are on the rise, it is more important than ever that we reject self-imposed isolation and explore fresh opportunities for UK businesses overseas. Under the right leadership, we can do that in a way that reflects our core values of mutual respect and shared prosperity. China should be no exception.