The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee recently put out a report on the UK’s relations with China. This was seen by some as indicating a turn to a more cautious or suspicious line towards China.
I tend to read these reports more for what it tells us about how people think about the issues. As I’ve indicated before I think UK foreign policy thinking tends towards an undifferentiated global liberalism that doesn’t provide a basis for prioritizing one thing over another.
This report has quite a lot of this but also some signs of greater appreciation of real world constraints.
The reading of China seems quite plausible. China likes order but has some reservations about current one. A central driver of Chinese external behaviour is the security of the regime, which also translates (as Max Weber would expect) into a concern with questions of prestige.
The report spends quite a lot of time discussing a whole list of contentious issues in relations with China; the South China Sea, the treatment of the Uighurs and the state of democracy in Hong Kong, Huawei, Belt and Road Initiative, influence activities in the UK and gives some consideration to what should be done about them but the report seems to swing between a faith in an abstract legal order and a rather one on one confrontational stance. One of the strangest things in the report is the demand that the FCO produce a report on situations where it has successfully changed China’s position. By the time that a country like China has a well-defined position it is going to be extremely difficult to change it and even if it does change its mind it will be very careful to obscure what has happened. Also a good diplomat will not boast about this.
In relation to British policy the report points to the apparent disconnect between the Ministry of Defence, which seems quite keen to send an aircraft carrier to the South China Sea, and the Treasury which has its own emissary to China outside the normal diplomatic framework. The Committee wants a statement of strategy towards China that can guide the actions of all government bodies. That doesn’t seem unreasonable but UK government is quite capable of producing a strategy that is simply a list of departmental preferences and doesn’t set priorities.
Because China is developing a global presence there should be a China strategy but this needs to be developed in the context of an Asian strategy and an overall international strategy. The report keeps returning to the question of influence and treating China in isolation actually makes this question much more intractable. Putting China in an Asian context may show ways of working with Asian (and other) countries to push things in a desirable connection.
There is also a need for a greater recognition of the differences in motivations on different issues – it’s probably much easier to influence issues around Huawei or even the Belt and Road than it is on those that are seen in Beijing as to do with national cohesion, which of these issues are going to have be treated things that are protested for forms sake and which are going to be subject of a political strategy that expects to get a result. The rhetoric of rules based international order tries link everything together and make it all equally important. Strategy pushes towards choice and discrimination in the real world.