The Coalition Agreement stated under paragraph 15 on Foreign Affairs that, “We will work to establish a new ‘special relationship’ with India and seek closer engagement with China, while standing firm on human rights in all our bilateral relationships.”
Labour commentators have speculated that by making a distinction in UK’s relationship with the two Asian giants, India and China, the Coalition may be seeking to pitch one against the other.
I disagree and believe this careful choice of words was used to encapsulate the different historical links UK has had with these two countries and to point the way forwards.
India was the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the British Empire. Today, she is a nation with a population representing 18% of the world and South Asians are the largest ethnic minority group in the UK. There is a shared British and Commonwealth history and identity and the English language is widely spoken in India.
China has had a chequered history with Britain. Imbalances in trade led to diplomatic disputes and the Opium wars culminating in the ceding of Hong Kong by the Qing emperor to Britain. Only in 1972 did China start re-establishing formal ties again and in 1997 Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule – albeit under a temporary joint administration.
I was fortunate to have been a guest of the 11th Ambassador to UK, Mr Liu Xiao Ming, following the occasion of ‘Vin d’honneur’, the presentation of his credentials to Her Majesty last month. He spoke about how far the countries had travelled in the last 38 years: in 1972 bilateral trade was at US$300million, last year this stood at £39 billion. There were a few dozen Chinese students studying in UK then, today there are close to 100,000, by far the largest group of foreign students in this country.
There is no doubt that continued and greater economic co-operation would be in our mutual interests and benefit. Indeed as China seeks to diversify from its reliance on coal power to renewable energy, this is exactly the opportunity that British companies should capitalise on, and to embark on what we Liberal Democrats have called the ‘green road to recovery’.
China also holds the controversial prospect of becoming the next super power, overtaking the US economy by 2050. There are differing reactions to this prognosis, there are sceptics who do not believe that an un-modernised state could achieve that degree of growth, as against those who believe in this prospect and fear the emergence of the sleeping dragon. Indeed Martin Jacques in his book ‘When China Rules the World’ envisages a new modern China that does not conform to western models but may yet exert her influence in forging a new world order.
Perhaps it is this latter view that has led to the Coalition’s statement, putting as a priority closer engagement with China. I understand that PM Cameron rang Premier Wen Jia Bao on his second day in office and Chancellor George Osborne has already made an official visit to China in early June.
However it is not only economic co-operation that we need to focus on. China has a crucial role to play on the Security Council, in the G20 and is also known to have strong trading links and influence over nations such North Korea, Burma and some African states.
Though I was not privy to the negotiations that had led to the final Coalition Agreement, I can only surmise that the addition of the words ‘standing firm on human rights’ would be a Liberal Democrat insertion. It is equally likely that the moderating influence of our Party had led to the Conservatives quietly abandoning their manifesto pledge to repeal the Human Rights Act in the UK!
There is merit in the argument that human rights should be more broadly defined to include socio-economic rights and the Chinese have in the last 3 decades lifted over 40% of their population out of poverty. I also believe that reference to China’s human rights record should not be used merely as a negotiating tool but as a genuine expression of concern whenever there is just cause. However pointing a trident missile in the direction of China would not be the solution either. ‘Closer engagement’ suggests constructive dialogue rather than threats or sanctions.
In conclusion, I believe that we have entered an exciting new era with the formation of the Coalition Government. It is in many ways a very Eastern concept seeking out the middle ground and working co-operatively to find solutions in the national interests. With increased globalisation, banks and markets are now inter-connected and with the threat of climate change we need to work together to protect our shared environment.
As a British Chinese I therefore welcome the coalition statement for greater engagement with China and as a Liberal I embrace greater equality and protection of human rights in China as well as in the rest of the world!
Merlene Emerson is Chair of Chinese Liberal Democrats