The dragon in the room: why British politicians need to stop ignoring China

Britain’s instinct with regard to China is first to ignore it, second to see it as a giant pot of money and thirdly to impotently complain about its human rights record. Given the country’s importance for our future we need to be more sophisticated than that.


During the run up to the General Election, David Cameron appeared to forget which football team he supported. At the time I took to Facebook to grumble “This story means the General Election will have generated more discussion about football than the rise of China”. If it was an exaggeration, it wasn’t much of one. The Labour manifesto said that: “As power and wealth continues to shift from West to East, our relationship with Asia will be fundamental to our long-term prosperity. Labour will set up an Asia Step-Change Taskforce to ensure a more strategic and effective dialogue with regional partners, including China, both in the commerical realm, and in other areas, from cultural exchange to human rights.”  It was the only reference to China in the document. It’s also the sole mention in any major party’s manifesto that China’s coming ascendancy might change British foreign policy. It’s mentioned a couple of other times but they are all to do with trade. Oh and UKIP make a random point about other countries including China burning cheaper fossil fuels than the UK does!

China just doesn’t come up in British political debates all that much. The media does talk about the country a fair bit but usually as a business story. And as the references in the manifesto imply that’s a lead politicians follow. Even when we acknowledge that there is more to China than money, we see unable to move beyond human rights issues. That lends political discussions of the UK-China relationship an air of unreality. Through our pressure we will apparently cajole China into freeing Tibet or being less beastly to the Falun Gong. In reality, China now has a larger economy, more powerful military and greater clout than the UK, so it is more likely they will influence us than visa versa.

This is in sharp contrast to the US. One of the tenants of Obama’s foreign policy is ‘a pivot to Asia’. This has included sending additional American troops to South Korea and setting up the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) a huge trade deal including nations that between them account for almost half of global GDP. The aim has been to strengthen the bonds between the US and its allies in the vicinity of China. Given that most of this originated from Hilary Clinton’s time as Secretary of State, it seems likely that the US will be pivoting for a while longer.

It is not only in official circles that Americans are discussing what China’s rise will mean. Gallup polling on which country Americans believe to be the US’s threat produces fairly erratic numbers. But China is always among the top three ‘threats’. The concern is sufficiently widespread that Donald Trump has sensed it as a subject on which he can demagogue. While Mexican and Muslims have borne the brunt of his xenophobia, China has also been a target.

There are legitimate reasons that Europeans would be less interested in China than an American. The kind of thing the US is trying to pivot away from – the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine – are on Europe’s border. The US also has larger Chinese and East Asian diasporas. And there’s the brute fact that what we do just matters less: the US navy might be able to turn back a Chinese attack on Taiwan, the Royal Navy clearly couldn’t.

That said we will increasingly see China playing a role outside its traditional sphere of influence. Let me illustrate that point using two issues.

Firstly, China is being gradually being pulled into the War on Terror. Since 9/11, China has being drawing a link between unrest amongst its Uyghur minority – who are mostly Muslim – and international terrorism. It’s hard to tell to what extent the Communist Party is conflating actual terrorism and peaceful dissent. However, if there wasn’t a link before, the clampdown on the Uyghur’s and their religious freedom has created a blacklash that has radicalised some young Chinese. ISIS now produces propaganda material in Mandarin and has executed a Chinese national. These kinds of trends are pushing China to, for example, becoming increasingly involved in Afghanistan and even conduct negotiations with the Taliban.

Secondly, let us consider the founding of an institution known as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). You will be unsurprised to find out that its stated purpose is to provide investment for infrastructure projects in developing countries – especially those in Asia. Its creation was a Chinese initiative and it was widely interpreted as being its attempt to create an alternative to the World Bank. This hints at what is probably the most profound impact of China’s rise. Since WWII, the institutions and rules governing the international order have largely been those created by Western nations. China is beginning to acquire the heft to change those. There’s a plausible argument that this might be a bad thing. For example, the US feared that the AIIB would reflect the poor standards of governance prevalent within China. That might mean less transparency or loans given without regard to the environmental consequences or potential for corruption. There was also a fear that China would use its dominant role within the organisation to turn it into a tool for promoting its own economic interests: say by pressuring the recipients of loans to use them to buy surplus Chinese goods. These fears led the US, Japan and Australia to boycott the institution.

What makes the saga of the AIIB particularly instructive is that European countries including the UK took more or less exactly the opposite approach to the US. They joined the AIIB and were thereby able to dilute Chinese control of the organisation. China now pledges the AIIB will match the World Bank’s lending standards and has stopped talking about it as a way of solving its ‘excess capacity’ problem. We will have to see how the AIIB performs in practice to judge whether European engagement or American wariness was wiser. Either way the issue has revealed the potential for China’s rise to strain the UK’s relationship with the US. The White House publically rebuked the UK for joining the AIIB and behind the scenes US officials complained that they hadn’t been consulted before Britain made the decision. I doubt that this will be the last time such divisions flare up. For the reasons already discussed it is a lot easier to take a benign view of China from London from Washington. This extends to public attitudes: Pew found 55% of Americans view China unfavourably compared to just 38% of Britains. Staying close to the US has been the overriding objective of British foreign policy since at least WWII. China’s rise may force Britain to re-evaluate whether that’s still desirable or indeed feasible.

One thought on “The dragon in the room: why British politicians need to stop ignoring China

  1. Pingback: The last Lib Dem manifesto mentioned Israel more than the entire Asia-Pacific, and that’s a problem | Matter Of Facts

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