By Chris Goddard and Philip Mitchell are both members of the Lewes Conservative Political Forum.
The West has been full of righteous indignation about supposed excesses in the Peoples’ Republic of China, from the treatment of the Uighurs and the ending of democracy in Hong Kong, to the threat to Taiwan and the spat between China and Australia.
The Biden Administration has had its eyes and ears opened wide recently by the Chinese tirade at the Alaskan conference with the US National Security Adviser. But these are faraway actions so far as the UK is concerned, prompting no more than the usual ritual warnings from Dominic Raab about “unacceptable behaviour”.
The game has changed. Not only has the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued its fatwa against certain Westminster MPs for speaking out about alleged human rights abuses, but the country’s chief cyber regulator has now announced that it will sanction any online criticism of the Communist regime and encourage internet users worldwide to snitch on others who “deny the excellence of advanced socialist culture”.
That is perfectly capable of extending to words uttered in the UK. So there we have it: Big Brother, in the form of a dragon, has finally arrived.
Much ink has been spilt on the question of what the West’s, and indeed the UK’s, response to China should be: a boycott of goods; a refusal to import communications or nuclear technology; a blocking of outward intellectual property transfers; the offer of refuge to displaced citizens of Hong Kong?
All these are knee jerk reactions and all miss the essential truth: that the Peoples’ Republic has become the second world power and intends to pursue its agenda of international domination by whatever means are available. Our sitting like King Canute on the edge of the waves, commanding that the tide rise no further, has a distinctly outmoded ring to it.
Since with two exceptions the rest of the world are minnows swimming in these dangerous waters, how can the West and in particular, Britain, respond in any meaningful way? Joe Biden has just proposed one of them, and we can be a champion for the other: out-compete and form alliances.
The US’s idea, a far cry from Trump’s tariffs and protectionism, is that financial muscle in the West can out-perform Chinese technology and manufacture and make enhanced strategic investment in countries where China currently “colonises” by means of loans and infrastructure projects. The second strand, international alliances, must necessarily draw in developing countries sympathetic to democratic values whose chief assets are their burgeoning industry, scarce raw materials, and populations. The greatest of these is India, whose population even now matches China and by 2050 will exceed it by a predicted 237 million, according to Worldometer.
Of a telephone conversation to Boris Johnson on 27th March , President Biden recounted: “we talked about China and the competition they’re engaging in in the Belt and Road initiative. And I suggested we should have, essentially, a similar initiative coming from the democratic states, helping those communities around the world.”
By “those communities” it is assumed he meant those African and South American states where soft power intervention is achieved by aid programmes rather than military presence. American policy in a number of key areas presently rests on vague pronouncements to spend trillions of extra dollars in pursuance of democratic ideals of the “public good”. Whether these will materialise remains to be seen, but America alone has the reach and resources to stretch out in this way.
Other countries, including the UK, debt-ridden by Covid-19 for the foreseeable future, cannot compete in this league. What, then, can Britain do?
Many have argued that the reduction in spending on overseas aid is a hammer-blow to soft power overseas. It need not be so. The mass of trade deals skilfully negotiated by Liz Truss will enable many poorer countries to offer their natural products to Britain. on favourable terms. We can also afford to be generous with the roll out of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which Europe now despises, bearing in mind that the Chinese vaccine has been officially announced to be of “low efficacy” at around 50 per cent (although one wonders whether the hapless official who made that announcement will ever be seen in public again).
China is donating millions of jabs to its client states and there is no reason why the UK should not do the same. We can also import more goods from Japan, Taiwan and South Korea and less from China. Although our £30 billion worth of yearly exports to the Peoples’ Republic must not be thrown away, our most precious export is our democratic way of life, the rule of law, and the cry of freedom.
Yet it is the area of diplomacy that Britain could take a leading role in equalising relations between states and moderating China’s world dominance, and preferably putting it on a less aggressive footing. This centres round the idea that you do not want to fight on too many fronts. While China may feel able to bully its smaller neighbours, particularly Australia, over commodity supplies and purchase of territory, a counter-alliance which includes the US, Japan, Brazil, Nigeria, and above all India, all highly populous countries in the Western sphere, orchestrated from London, would be a force to contend with.
Container ships, not cutlasses, would be the weapon of choice. There could be a standing council comprised of senior representatives of participating states, taking joint action against belligerence wherever it occurs.
The aim must surely be to recognise China for the superpower it is, with its long history of culture and achievement, but to seek to persuade its leadership that the path to greatness lies in co-operation in key areas in which all humankind has a profound interest: better standards of living, addressing climate change, the conservation of scarce resources, medical advances for everybody, and the empowerment of women to slow population growth. These are not contentious goals, and they do not need to be fought over.
There is one area where Britain alone is in a position to prevent disaster: the displaced people of Hong Kong, who are seeing their democratic future under the 1997 Two Systems treaty dismantled before their eyes. Last year the Foreign Secretary rightly made an open-ended commitment to dual passport holders to allow residence over here, a decision is self-evidently justified on moral and economic grounds. There are, however no discernible practical steps to assimilate the numbers who are estimated to want to come: half a million at the least, three million at the most.
Where are these people to go in our crowded island and shouldn’t we be taking steps now to facilitate their welcome arrival? What a beautiful solution to a raging problem – let the Chinese become British.