Parliamentary Committee Report on UK-China Relations

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.

Ecological Control and Foreign Influence

Updated 8 May 2019 to improve clarity.

If you’ve been exposed to any kind of training in ‘strategy’ thinking in political, business or communications contexts it’s easy to get into the habit of thinking in an extremely linear way; what’s my objective, resources, timeframe etc.  There are good reasons for this; the world tends to entropy and the clarity of a plan is a way to generate action in a resistant world.  As the saying goes a ‘a bad plan well executed is better than a good plan badly executed’.

But this isn’t the only way of getting things done. A very common way of acting is what’s called ecological control.  That is an actor influences others not by trying to dictate precisely what they do but by influencing their environment.  In a classic statement of this idea the White House announces all budgets of government agencies will be cut by 5% but leaves it up to the agencies to decide how they will meet the target.  Clearly there is an ‘effect’ but the initiator is not responsible for particular choices.  You can argue that nudging /choice architecture or reflexive control are more directive variants of this given that in that they operate by shaping the environment rather than by dictating an action.

One of the reasons that it is difficult to make sense of questions of foreign influence is that often influence activities are aimed at shaping the ecology rather than achieving a direct objective.  Public diplomacies can be about creating opportunities rather controlling end states.  The issue that tends to face countries with in dealing with a partner is that these indirect, non-political effects can begin to affect the overall political ecology of the country; groups with particular attachments begin to pull overall policy in favoured directions.  In dealing with the foreign influence question such pulls are harder to deal with that out and out ‘collusion’.  It is up to those that are concerned about the consequences of such activities to politicize them but in doing so they find that those involved can (often quite plausibly) deny any political intention let alone ‘collusion’, they have merely acted to improve relations between the two countries or pursue business or study interests.   Although, in the current situation one might read the two countries as Australia (or the EU) and China the logic is the same between any pair of countries and much foreign public engagement activity.

This opens up a set of questions about the circumstances where particular relations become politicised.  The acme of skill in public diplomacies is to modify ways of doing things in another country without them becoming objects of political controversy.  Any general consideration of the foreign influence questions needs to engage with the ecological dimension not just with direct effects.