The good folks at Liberal Democrat Voice have very kindly run an article I wrote on the Liberal Democrat policy towards the Asia-Pacific, or rather the lack of it. They sensibly ask contributors to keep their submissions fairly short. Given that I was writing about a rather broad topic that meant I had to leave a fair amount out. So for those of you who are interested, here is the unabridged version of the article.
Did you see Gary Johnson – the Libertarian Party candidate for the American presidency – forgetting ‘what’ Aleppo is? If not I’d recommend it:
I challenge you to watch the look of bafflement on his face and not laugh. But when you have finished chuckling, may I ask you a question? What do you think about Shenzhen?
My guess is most of you are now drawing a blank. Until I had to catch a train from Shenzhen station, I did not know either. Which is rather embarrassing as by one definition it is the 8th largest city in the world. It is adjacent to but several times the size of Hong Kong. Startlingly, China has grown so large that Hong Kong is no longer among its twenty largest cities.
Most Britons now know that China is enormous. What is less widely understood is that so is the rest of the Asia-Pacific region. Indeed more people live there than in the rest of the world combined:
Credit: Redditor valeriepieris
Despite this the last Liberal Democrat manifesto includes more references to Israel – which has 0.001% of the world’s population – than to all the countries in the Asia-Pacific combined. And the only context they are mentioned in is advocating the benefits of EU membership. There are (or have been) groups declaring themselves to be “the Liberal Democrat Friends…” of Israel, Palestine, Kashmir, India and Turkey but not of China, Indonesia or Vietnam.* Basically it appears that if a Lib Dem says they are interested in foreign policy that means they are interested in Europe or parts of the Islamic world somewhat adjacent to it.
I can foresee two possible reasons to think it is more import for British politicians to know about these regions than about the Asia-Pacific.
Firstly, they are nearer the UK. This has some merit but misses our close connection to the Asia-Pacific. Much of it used to be British colonies and as a result many Britons can trace their ancestry there. More than 100,000 students from the region study in the UK. China is our second largest import partner. Many of the financial flows to and from the Asia-Pacific go via the City of London. Lest we forget, HSBC stands for ‘the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation’. And thousands of British citizens, myself included, live in the region.
The other response might be to suggest that there have simply been more events worthy of our attention taking place in Europe and the Middle East. If you have been thinking this then this demonstrates my point about how little attention is paid to the Asia-Pacific. It is true that the region has not seen anything as grim as the Syrian Civil War of late. Though the situations of the Rohingya minority in Burma and of the citizens of North Korea do bear comparison.
However, plenty else has happened. Ponder the following developments:
- In 1990 65% of East Asians lived in extreme poverty. Now just 3.5% of them do. That is the fastest reduction in poverty in human history;
- Since 1997, China’s defence budget has increased by 600% in real terms. That has given it the muscle necessary to seize and fortify Vietnamese and Filipino territory in the South China Sea. It also raises questions about Taiwan’s ability to resist an invasion;
- North Korea now has multiple nuclear warheads and increasingly advanced systems to deliver them;
- The aftermath of a massive property crash in 1992 has turned Japan into a test cast for policies to escape stagnation. For example, it was the first country to use quantitative easing;
- The populations of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are aging even more rapidly than those of Western countries;
- Tensions between India and Pakistan remain high. This is often depicted as a frozen conflict but it claims fatalities on a regular basis. To complicate matters further Pakistan is one of China’s few genuine allies whilst Beijing seems to regard Delhi as a potential rival;
- The new Filipino president has instigated a campaign of police and vigilante violence that has killed thousands. He has also intimated that he may downgrade the Philippine’s traditional alliance with the US in order to move closer to China. Oh and he has a potty mouth. The latter development seems to be of the greatest interest to the Western Media;
- Burma has swapped military for civilian rule whilst Thailand has done the opposite;
- Rather improbably Vietnam has emerged as one of the most pro-capitalist and pro-American countries on earth; and
- Of especial importance to a party called the Liberal Democrats: Singapore has made authoritarian technocracy into a viable ideological competitor to liberal democracy.
When a crisis eventually pushes one of these issues into the spotlight of British politics – and that will happen sooner rather than later – will we have something more to offer than a Gary Johnson style blank stare? We certainly could. We have done it before. Paddy Ashdown’s advocacy of giving passports to the residents of Hong Kong ahead of its return to China was one of the issues the Party used to prove its relevancy and distinctiveness after the disaster of merger. But my impression is that our credibility on that issue was essentially down to Ashdown personally – he had lived in Hong Kong and spoke Chinese – and is not something that we institutionalised at all. I may be being unfair but I struggle to think of anyone other than Ashdown at a senior level in the Party who has much insight into the Asia-Pacific. We have to rectify that. The Asia-Pacific is set to be the fulcrum of the twentieth-first century. If we have nothing to say about it, in a real sense we have nothing to say about the world we live in.
*There are the Chinese Liberal Democrats but they exist “to promote closer links between the Party and the Chinese and South East Asian community in the UK.”
If you are interested in this topic then check out a post I wrote last year on why British politicians need to stop ignoring China