The British government has put trade with China above vital issues of national security and human rights in a policy which “reflects an unwillingness to face the reality” that Beijing is an “active challenger” to the UK in many areas, according to the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee.
A report by the MPs states that the UK “needs to recalibrate its policy towards China”. A declaration by Theresa May’s government of a “golden era” in relations between the UK and China may have been misconceived and much greater scrutiny needs to be given, it says, to claims of interference in British domestic affairs by Beijing, and intelligence risks such as those allegedly posed by the involvement of telecommunications giant Huawei in this country’s 5G infrastructure.
The conclusions from the influential committee is the latest in a series of warnings of the dangers Britain faces in its craving to for commerce with China amid post-Brexit uncertainties.
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A recent report by RUSI (Royal United Services Institute) charted a supposed “concerted strategy” by Beijing of infiltration of targeted countries, including the UK, ranging from surreptitiously spreading technology reach through firms like Huawei to the “elite capture” of people in important positions and opinion formers by placing of “advisers”.
The Foreign Affairs Committee urges the government to develop a cross-department strategy on dealing with China by the end of next year and make the document public. The report recommends that the government is “cautious about the involvement of Chinese companies in any aspect of UK critical national infrastructure, including telecommunications.
“It should also assess whether the Chinese government, or individuals or entities acting on behalf of the Chinese government, have improperly interfered, or attempted to interfere, in the UK’s political institutions and processes, the rule of law, UK media or UK academia, and set out what it is doing to counter such interference, or the prospect of it.”
The report – “China and the rules-based international system” – maintains that “China is a force for order, but not liberal order” and Beijing’s main aim is “the consolidation of power in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party under President Xi Jinping”.
The main focus of the country’s foreign policy is the need to serve the interests of the Chinese Communist Party, says the report, and this makes “China a viable partner for the UK on some issues, but an active challenger in others”.
The MPs express deep concern that the UK’s current approach to China “risks prioritising economic considerations over other interests, values and national security” and they urge the government to be cautious about China’s highly controversial “Belt and Road” programme.
Most western European states have resisted Beijing’s enticements to join China’s scheme which has been used, say critics, to spread economic and political hegemony in parts of Asia and Africa.
The UK however is a participant with David Cameron leading a $1bn private fund supported by the British government. The chancellor, Philip Hammond, on a visit to Beijing, declared: “I was privileged earlier this year to represent the UK at the first Belt and Road forum and one of the things we will discuss is the opportunity for closer collaboration in delivering the ambitions of the Belt and Road programme.”
The committee calls on the government to “take a strictly case-by-case approach to project under China’s Belt and Road Initiative and not sign a Memorandum of Understanding in support of the Belt and Road Initiative”.
The fear of losing post-Brexit trade deals, critics say, is interfering with independence of foreign policy. An announcement by defence secretary Gavin Williamson that he intended to send the new aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth to the Pacific to enforce the right of navigation in disputed waters was reportedly attacked by Treasury officials because it had “irritated China”. Beijing holds it has territorial sovereignty over the waters despite its claim being rejected by an international tribunal.
A number of states have carried out freedom of navigation voyages in the area and the Foreign Affairs Committee held that Britain must “not permit core principles, such as freedom of navigation and the rights of countries to form alliances, to become a matter for negotiation in economic dialogue with China”, and it must “continue to exercise freedom of navigation in the South China Sea” while clarifying the legal basis for the presence of ships.
The government, say the MPs, should also address the issue of human rights, such as its imprisoning of Uighur Muslims, and the necessity to do so is not just on the grounds of morality and ethics.
“The impact of the treatment of the Uighur Muslim population and the minorities in China’s Xinjiang province could have in stirring up resentment could affect other countries, including us here in the UK” said committee chair Tom Tugdenhat.
He continued: “…a constructive, pragmatic and often positive UK relationship with China is possible, indeed essential, but achieving this will require strategy, rigour and unity in place of hope and muddling through. We must recognise that there are hard limits to what cooperation can achieve; that the values and interests of the Chinese Communist Party, and therefore the Chinese state, are often very different from those of the United Kingdom; and that the divergence of values and interests fundamentally shapes China’s worldview.”