The Huawei drama has exposed a depressing reality – Britain has no coherent plan for China

Posted: February 11, 2020 in Telegraph
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And now my first piece for the new year for the Telegraph offering some thoughts on how the UK needs to develop a strategy towards China now that the Huawei question has been resolved.

The Huawei drama has exposed a depressing reality – Britain has no coherent plan for China

Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace (L) and General Sir Nicholas Carter (R) leave Downing Street after attending the National Security Council meeting convened by Boris Johnson

Britain’s way forward has been wrongly framed as a binary choice between China and the US

In recent days, the Huawei debate has obscured a concerning longer-term trend; London’s inability to have a serious discussion about its approach to China.

The story of China’s rise to the first rank of international powers is well-known, but in Britain at least, it has largely been treated as an external event, of little direct consequence to the UK. The result has been an immature discussion that let the conversation about Huawei turn into a proxy for a discussion about China, reducing the debate to a false binary choice between Washington and Beijing. The truth is far more complicated, relating to where the UK sits in the world and how London will navigate the great power games buffeting the planet.

The world has changed in the two decades since the turn of the century. Where once terror threats dominated, the preeminent concern that now faces capitals is great power politics. While the trans-national threats posed by terrorist groups challenged our way of understanding who were our enemies, the challenge of current geopolitics is that it is not as conveniently binary as the Cold War.

China is a particularly complicated case. An authoritarian power whose internal fragilities are almost impossible to calculate (thus making it hard to know how strong or weak it actually is), what is clear is its assertive posture on the world stage.

The UK, like every other power on the planet, needs to have some sort of a relationship with both Beijing and Washington. Quite aside from the globalised economy that binds us all together  (notwithstanding the many difficulties of doing business with China), challenges such as climate change cannot be addressed without some engagement and coordination between everyone. Choosing between China and the US is therefore not a useful frame with which to look at the world.

And while this binary choice makes no sense from London, this reality is even more acute in parts of the world which are more dependent on China. While China’s actual economic influence, power and investment is often exaggerated in the developing world (as compared to European or American economic links), it is far harder for them to stand up to Beijing or Washington. This reality is something that complicates the UK’s engagement in these parts of the world. For example, both India and Pakistan are important powers to the UK. Both have complex relationships with China (as well as of course between each other and the US) which rank very high in their strategic thinking. They see China as both an opportunity and threat. Yet the UK needs to find a way of balancing between them all to advance its own interests.

The goal for the UK must be to focus on understanding where and when it should choose to engage, influence or counter Chinese behaviour. We must push back on aggressive Chinese activity – whether against neighbours or human rights abuses at home – and influence China as it plays an ever greater role in developing global norms. Chinese action on climate change, as well as Beijing’s role in the developing world requires engagement.

Looking at the other side of the coin, the US remains the UK’s preeminent security partner. The Five Eyes intelligence network and intimate security partnership is matched only by the close human, political and economic relationship across the Atlantic. Notwithstanding disagreements, like over Iran policy or the US’s recalcitrance on climate change, the transatlantic alliance is going to persist as London’s main security pillar on the world stage.

But the UK has no desire to follow the US down the path of cleaving the world in two. The idea of severing all links and pushing China into a purely adversarial relationship misses the vast complexity of China’s place in the world and is not to the UK’s advantage.

The truth is that both large powers are behaving in a manner they feel commensurate with their size and power. We now occupy a world which is determined by the realities of hard power rather than ideology. For the UK, navigating this world in a post-Brexit context will be a complicated soup of diplomacy and activism. It will not be an easy path to forge, but London needs to engage with the world as it is, rather than as it would like it to be. It will require a more serious conversation about foreign policy that does not simply boil it down to “yes” or “no” choices.

The Huawei debate has for too long occluded a serious conversation about China’s place in the world and how the UK should respond. This debate needs to take place at a public as well as a political level. Until it does, we will continue to find ourselves buffeted by the winds of geopolitical hard power, rather than steering our way through these choppy waters.

Comments
  1. […] Eurasian Review, on the other side of the coin spoke to CNN about China and Europe and the earlier Telegraph piece commenting in the wake of the UK’s Huawei decision was picked up by China Digital […]

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