Global Britain provides an opportunity to rethink our reliance on China

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An article by Lettuce Bromovsky, editorial intern at the Institute for Economic Affairs.

In 2015 David Cameron declared a ‘golden era’ in both diplomatic and economic relations with China. Yet today relations are rapidly breaking down. British politicians are calling on other nations to “get tough” and the Integrated Review claimed China is “the biggest state-based threat to the UK’s economic security”.

The last two years have seen relations become particularly hostile. The British government offered “a path to citizenship” to nearly 3m Hong Kongers after the pro-democracy riots in 2019 saw shocking police brutality and deadly violence. China has since imprisoned and exiled all pro-democracy activists, with many awaiting trial.

Moreover, the abhorrent oppression of the Uyghurs since 2017, with harrowing reports of forced labour camps and mass sterilisation leaking into Western media has hastened the deterioration of China’s global image. Its suppression of civil liberties is anathema to our liberal democracy, and there is a strong case to be made for us distancing our culture and politics from it.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Beijing-scepticism intensified after the outbreak of Covid-19 in the Wuhan province. In April 2020, the China Research Group was established by a group of Tory MPs to push for more severe restrictions on China, citing their clear lack of transparency and poor health control during the pandemic.

Public perception of China since the start of the pandemic has also deteriorated significantly.  One survey revealed that 83 per cent of Britons do not trust China and YouGov shows a 56 per cent negative rating for the country. This disdain can be linked with China’s poor handling of the outbreak; suppression of information, the regime’s refusal to share data, as well as its overzealous ‘mask diplomacy’ – cited by many as a way to further its own foreign policy and geopolitical objectives.

The stalled installation of Huawei into the UK’s 5G network put further strain on UK-China relations, culminating in a direct threat from China’s Ambassador to the UK, Liu Xioming, who said “We want to be your friend… But if you want to make China a hostile country, you will have to bear the consequences.”

Alex Young, former head of MI6, recently remarked China represents a “generational threat,” adding that there’s going to be “an ideological divergence between us in the future”.

It’s clear we can no longer fool ourselves into believing that greater economic growth, improved living standards and involvement in Western organisations will engender a more democratic and freer nation.

But it would also be equally foolish to think that we can simply cut ties with China or ignore its presence on the global playing field. It has the second largest economy in the world (with many predicting that it will overtake the US in the next decade), a population of almost 1.4 billion and an increasingly powerful influence in geopolitics and the global economy. Chinese representatives now lead 4 of the 15 UN specialised agencies responsible for setting standards in the areas of telecommunications, aviation and agriculture.

Moving towards “Global Britain”, as the aforementioned Review set out, provides an opportunity to rethink our reliance on China.

Coronavirus has illustrated the resilience of global supply chains – but it has also exposed our dependence on China for certain goods, including medical supplies and PPE. It’s one of many reasons why a UK-India trade deal is desirable: aside from the £1 billion of new investment and 6000 new jobs, India is the world’s biggest supplier of generic drugs.

International Trade Secretary Liz Truss has already solidified our position as a free trading nation with 67 (and counting) post-Brexit agreements, worth an estimated £900bn. Yes, many of these are effectively securing a rollover from previous EU arrangements, but a good number have been meaningfully augmented. Further, we have formally applied to join one of the world’s largest free-trade areas, the Comprehensive & Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which would open the door to strengthened trade ties with some of the fastest-growing markets in the world.

With countries such as Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia and Vietnam developing economic incentive zones and investing in new infrastructure, there are now more cost effective ways of accessing the ASEAN free trade area, without relying on a Chinese manufacturing base.

Once Britain has successfully formed these strong trading links and diversified its supply chains, it can begin to think about other ideas for improved democracy in China without fear of a cessation of goods. One strategy is ‘people’s diplomacy’,  an idea conceived by Joseph Sturge and Henry Richard which would ultimately lead to the dissemination of Western ideas in China and encourage insurgency from the Chinese people against their authoritarian regime.

Coronavirus has changed the way China is perceived on the global stage, and many countries are no longer willing to stand-by. By diversifying our global supply chains and securing free trade agreements with other countries in Asia, Britain will be able to distance itself from the authoritarian rule of China.

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