China and the Far East in more than one minute

At Spring Conference, I was pleased to be called to speak for just one minute in the debate “Liberal Values in a Dangerous World”. The topic of China and the threat it represents was naturally only one part of Policy Paper 157, and so with the excellent speech by David Chalmers there was not going to be room for an additional three minutes from someone such as myself. I hastily submitted my card halfway through the debate, hoping to make a brief point about Section 2.4 “China and the Far East” of the paper.

I possibly didn’t make my point clearly owing to haste and poor preparation; I think it deserves expanding upon. I began by explaining that having been on family holidays to both Malaysian Borneo and Cambodia recently, I learned a lot. Holidays aren’t just for pointing and exclaiming “Oh, look! Another temple!” They are for having long conversations about politics, society, local languages, religion and constitutional affairs with your tour guide whilst being driven for hours through the forests and plains between destinations. Learning about Malaysia’s federal constitution (oh, yes, you know I can’t write anything without including the F-word!) and the status of the non-Muslim majority state, Sarawak was fascinating and, more to the point, learning what the typical Cambodian tour guide thinks about China was eye-opening and most pertinent to our Spring Conference debate.

Section 2.4 of Policy Paper 157 calls for “Liberal Democrats to build new diplomatic, economic and security partnerships with democratic countries threatened by an increasingly authoritarian and aggressive China – like Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea”. Taiwan is, of course, a very particular case, but I challenge anyone to suggest in all seriousness that South Korea and Japan are under anything like the imminent and direct threat that some of China’s lesser neighbours are. What’s more, we certainly need Japan’s and South Korea’s help more than they need ours in any future security partnerships. With pressures from dubious Americans to erode NATO and with threats in Europe from Putin’s Russia, we need the military support of such nations to allow us to defend ourselves at home whilst maintaining the ability project influence elsewhere via powerful allies. I would further suggest that Europe should be calling for Japan to be rid of its pacifist constitutional restraints, but that’s for another debate.

Back to the main point: other nations such as Malaysia and Thailand may be ahead of the curve in economy, democracy and military strength, but countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos should not just be relegated to anonymous members of the dreadfully vague “Global South” or other such terms. It is Vietnam, not Japan that has almost its entire coastline facing the South China Sea that China is claiming as its own, and we’ve seen how the Chinese Belt and Road initiative is a lever for debt and servitude. Cambodia sits likewise right in China’s back yard. China is buying up coastal resorts, ploughing motorways through the jungle and building airports primarily for the benefit of Chinese tourist to use Cambodia as a playground – tourists who, it seems, are largely disliked by Cambodian tour guides for their rowdy, arrogant and loud behaviour. China is depriving the Mekong of water to fill enormous hydroelectric dams upstream, harming the ecosystem of lake Tonlé Sap, the largest freshwater body in South East Asia. Cambodia’s democracy appears rather one-sided and, sadly, King Norodom Sihamoni is not a patch on his predecessors of 800 years ago (such as King Jayavarman VII who built an extensive and visionary national healthcare system) and is held in low esteem – at least in private – by our wonderfully articulate, genteel and broad-minded tour guide, Rithy from Siem Reap, who considers the King to be in the pockets of the Chinese in stark contrast to the positive image one might glean from his Wikipedia entry.

The United Kingdom and its allies should be rapidly building up its relationships with, and investments in, these other countries, steering them in the direction of democracy and freedom. Freedom from China, specifically. As such, this deserves to be an explicit goal encompassed by any policy on “China and the Far East”. To my mind it seems shallow to focus on the “usual suspects” of Japan, Korea and Taiwan whilst China eats away at the economic minnows on its doorstep. That is why my school report for Section 2.4 of the paper Liberal Values in a Dangerous World simply reads as “Could try harder”.

* Michael is an English Council representative for the East of England

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One Comment

  • Steve Trevethan 20th Mar '24 - 7:56am

    Thank you for the holiday information gathered article.

    For al its shortcomings, might we also bear in mind that in China hunger has been marked reduced whilst in the U K it has increased.
    (Global Hunger Index and the Trussell Trust)

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