China: What should be our long-term response?

This year’s autumn conference will see the launch of the party’s Federal International Relations Subcommittee on China to help the party and its members understand and deal with the multifaceted challenges of a rising authoritarian China.

In March 2019, when the UK was part of the EU, the Joint Communication EU-China: A Strategic Outlook came out. It defined the EU’s approach to China in the following way:

China is, simultaneously, in different policy areas, a cooperation partner with whom the EU has closely aligned objectives, a negotiating partner with whom the EU needs to find a balance of interests, an economic competitor in the pursuit of technological leadership, and a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance.

The broad-based nature of the relationship allows us to take such a differentiated approach, although it must be said that the possibilities of cooperation are continually narrowing as China takes more strident positions in the world, backed by its Wolf Warrior diplomacy.

This autumn’s conference will home in specifically on the plight of the Uyghurs in China – and rightly condemn the situation. Nonetheless the conference fringe on China on Sunday (16.20-17.30hrs) will look at the multifaceted side of the UK/EU relationship with China. Speakers will include the Chair of the European Parliamentary Delegation for Relations with China Mr Reinhard Bütikofer MEP (German Greens); our own ALDE acting co-President Ilhan Kyuchyuk MEP; Lib Dem Lords Defence spokesperson Baroness Julie Smith; and myself. It will be chaired by former Lib Dems MEP and Federal International Relations Committee Chair Phil Bennion.

Areas which need special attention in UK/EU-China relations are climate change and biodiversity (major international conferences this year); fighting COVID-19; the US-China confrontation; China’s undermining of democracy and encroachment on human rights internally and around the world; CCP influence and disinformation activities in our countries; the Belt and Road Initiative; security and technology; Taiwan; Hong Kong; China’s South China Sea island grab; and economic issues such as diversification of supply chains, reciprocity and creating a level playing field for our trade and investment with China.

The UK and EU, as truly likeminded partners, ought to chart their own course with China irrespective of what the US does, as US objectives and interests do not necessarily coincide with ours.

The rise of authoritarian China will not go away, nor its rule by the Communist Party. We must find a way to deal with China by cooperating, competing and confronting it depending on the issue at stake. We should base ourselves on our principles, values and interests while conducting our policies in a pragmatic way with a long-term perspective in mind. In all this, above all, we must protect the independence of our actions our own democracies in Europe from being undermined. The subcommittee really looks forward to engaging with and working with party members to this end, as this is one of the great challenges of our age.

* George Cunningham is Chair, Federal International Relations Subcommittee on China and a former Deputy Head of China Division, European External Action Service, Brussels. He is also the Chair of Lib Dems Overseas.

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  • Brad Barrows 13th Sep '21 - 11:20am

    The key thing in dealing with China is to recognise the issues it will be willing to go to war over if it’s interests are threatened. Hong Kong, Taiwan and probably the South China Sea are such issues. Of those three issues, I fear that Taiwan is most likely to be the trigger for a major conflict – all it would take would be a Taiwanese Declaration of Independence and China would resort to force. Unless we are willing to go to war to support a breakaway Chinese province in its quest for independence, we need to avoid sending any messages that would embolden the Taiwanese leadership to take the world down that path.

  • Brad, Taiwan is not a Breakaway Chinese Province and using such language demeans it and its people. Too often we rationalise independence movements nearby as a democratic right for educated Western European peoples, but for those far away, threatened by a powerful neighbour, we find reasons to allow a bully nation to trample on democratic rights.

    Weak words (and actions) in democracies merely embolden tyrants and condemn others to losing their liberties. Perhaps we don’t condemn Belarus and refuse to stand with Ukraine because Russia might kick off. Then Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Likewise don’t upset China over Taiwan and the South China Sea. Then South Korea.
    Then Malaysia, Singapore and Japan.

    As Pastor Martin Niemöller said so wisely “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

    Or, even more so “Men fight for liberty and win it with hard knocks. Their children, brought up easy, let it slip away again, poor fools. And their grandchildren are once more slaves.” – DH Lawrence

    The question all Liberal Democrats have to answer is which generation are we?

  • How the Lib Dems have fallen. Do the Lib Dems have any values anymore? It’s one thing being pragmatic quite another to infantilise a whole nation. Taiwan is a democracy – it largely avoided multiple deaths as it knows exactly the nature of the beast.

    Too much presentism in the LIb Dem grassroots at the moment.

    Here’s what I’d do. I’d question closely ALL Chinese passport holders who are anywhere near any cultural or educational institution. I’d also have a strategy for decoupling from the CCP – over time. We can’t reverse one of the most catastrophic and naive foreign and domestic policy decisions overnight.

    Strip all CCP of their investments in the property market in London and elsewhere. Stop all CCP investment in our utilities and anything involved with security. Then keep up the pressure.

    It’s better to be slightly poorer and stronger than wealthier and over the barrel of a gun.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 13th Sep '21 - 1:09pm


    Great piece. The thing to realise though, we need more liberty and democracy for China, Taiwan, less libertarianism and demonstrably indulgent nonsense for those in the West who abuse the liberties and the democratic rights they have.

    The cry of anthoritarianism, the second we are asked to take both voluntary personal responsibility, with a modicum of compulsory social responsibility,is maddening to say the least!!!!!!!!!!

  • David Evans 13th Sep '21 - 2:33pm

    Indeed Lorenzo. I agree wholeheartedly.

  • Brad Barrows 13th Sep '21 - 6:03pm

    @David Evan
    I believe if you check the history, Chinese communist forces took over all of mainland China in 1949 but the island of Formosa remained under the control of the previous government. Initially, the Chinese government based in Formosa (or Taiwan as it was later known) retained international recognition as the government of all China but this eventually changed to reflect the reality of the situation and the Communist government was recognised. Since then, the ‘government of China based in Taiwan’ has continued to govern Taiwan and the Chinese communist government has continued to regard Taiwan as that part of China that has yet to be brought under the control of the mainland based Chinese government. Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations as it is not recognised by the UN as an independent country – it is regarded by the UN as part of China. Your comparison between Taiwan and South Korea etc is disingenuous as South Korea is recognised by the UN as an independent country. Should Taiwan decide to declare independence, it would be seeking to get recognition as having broken from China.

  • China is not Nazi Germany or even the USSR. China is in the more traditional business of cultivating non-ideological client states. Most importantly, the USSR’s economy was almost entirely detached from the west. China’s is intimately entangled. For a few years, we believed we could convert China to liberal democracy by deepening our economic engagement. The idea that membership of the WTO leads to democracy proved to be a naive expectation. Now we’re threatening to go into full reverse — to enforce so-called economic “decoupling” with China. In other words, we’re swapping one failed grand bet for another.
    That is another flawed strategy. Free trade has brought hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty. Chinese investment is global. They trade all over the world. China has a burgeoning middle class and Chinese tourists visit every part of the globe. That is how it should be. Putting up barriers will only create suspicion and hostility to the West and ultimately is the path to a land war in Asia – something even the belligerent Douglas MacArthur understood was a non-starter when he told JFK Anyone wanting to commit ground troops to Asia should have his head examined,”

  • Steve Trevethan 13th Sep '21 - 6:59pm

    Thank you for your interesting article!
    What might be our principles, values and interests?
    How have we demonstrated them in Afghanistan?
    How are we demonstrating them in our own country where food bank use has increased 74% in the last five years?

  • @ Steve Trevethan “How are we demonstrating them in our own country where food bank use has increased 74% in the last five years?”

    An even more illuminating statistic :

    “since 2010 the number of emergency food parcels distributed by Trussell Trust food banks has risen from just over 40,000 to well over one and a half million – an increase of 3,900% in just 9 years”. (Source, Trussell Trust, 2019)

    I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about how and why that was, Steve.

  • Steve Trevethan 13th Sep '21 - 11:36pm

    Many tanks to Mr Raw for his devastating data about increasing hunger in our wealthy country!
    If we can afford faulty tanks, might we afford not to starve our children?
    Might a difference between our country and China be the crucial matter of who really controls the big money?
    Is it the government on behalf of the people, including the starving?
    Is it the government on behalf of the finance industry/industries?
    Is it the finance industries on behalf of the finance industries?
    Is it the government on behalf of the government?
    Or what?
    The attached article makes interesting points which may have truths.
    What do you think?
    What might it tell us about our principles, values and interests?

  • Michael Hudson is always worth reading and has a good understanding of how economic rents are extracted through financialisation – ” a rentier economy in which land, natural resources and natural monopolies are privatized and, in due course, financialized to turn rent into a flow of interest payments to the financial sector as the economy is driven into debt to afford the rentier overhead and debt-financed asset-price inflation for rent-yielding assets.”
    I am not so sure that China’s model is a good alternative though. Younger Chinese (and their British counterparts) seem to have had enough of working 12 hour days six days a week to be able to pay for overpriced housing

  • David Evans 14th Sep '21 - 5:13pm

    Brad, actually I am very well aware of the history relating to China, Taiwan, South Korea and the United Nations over that period, well enough to be able to point out the fundamental illiberal flaws in the current arrangements that you are putting so much emphasis on.

    As you say, the Communist Chinese forces conquered mainland China with the island of Taiwan as the only part under the control of the nationalist old government. Since then, there have been, in fact, two countries both claiming and using the name China – the communist PRC and the nationalist ROC. Both have territory which was part of the old China, both have stable governments which largely represent the views of their people, although the substantial extent to which PRC coercion and control enforces and ensures this is clear for all to see. These are facts.

    Also largely factual is your statement that ” Initially, the Chinese government based in Formosa (or Taiwan as it was later known) retained international recognition as the government of all China …” However, most if not all communist countries recognised the PRC, while most Western countries did not. Continuous manoeuvring in the UN carried on each year by the communist side (usually led by Albania) to replace the ROC with the PRC until in 1971 a majority of countries voted to expel the ROC and replace it with the PRC, while an amendment to produce an alternate motion to accept both countries as members was defeated. This possibility of recognition of both countries was largely unthinkable due to the entrenched Cold War position particularly on the communist side.

  • David Evans 14th Sep '21 - 5:19pm

    Brad, to finish off.

    So when you say “this eventually changed to reflect the reality of the situation and the Communist government was recognised,” it didn’t reflect the reality that there were and still are two states. It jumped from one untenable position to another. This became entrenched in the UN bureaucracy by the wording of UN Resolution which included the disgraceful clause “to expel forthwith the representatives of Chiang Kai-shek from the place which they unlawfully occupied at the United Nations and in all the organizations related to it.” While it was supported by the Communist states and a substantial number of African countries under Soviet influence at the time, states including the UK, Canada, Denmark and Sweden should be a source of great shame to them all, as it was this triumph of politics over inclusivity that left where Taiwan is in effective stateless limbo. Not some high moral decision made by nations in union.

    As I said and reiterate, “Taiwan is not a Breakaway Chinese Province and using such language demeans it and its people.” Pretending otherwise is just bowing to a belligerent nuclear power. Now Realpolitic might lead you to the conclusion that Taiwan is on its own and Joe Biden’s version of Donald Trump’s isolationist “America First” policy is likely to leave them on their own, but South Korea will shiver in terror if Taiwan falls and the whole of the democratic Far East will be in danger, unless we stand with them.

  • Paul Fisher 14th Sep '21 - 8:54pm

    What is the LibDems policy proposal for the UK?

  • Andrew Tampion 15th Sep '21 - 7:22am

    Brad. I may be mistaken but I think that I have seen you post in support of the right of Scotland to self determination. If that is correct have you changed your mind and would you refer to an independent Scotland as a breakaway UK province?

  • Peter Hirst 17th Sep '21 - 2:06pm

    The rise of China is a reality and we must deal with it. Negotiation, warnings, collaboration, actions will all be part of the mix. China will also change with or without our help.

  • Peter Martin 20th Sep '21 - 12:50pm

    @ Joe,

    “China is not Nazi Germany or even the USSR.”

    Thanks for pointing that out, but I think we all know that the PRC is not anything else other than, er, the PRC.

    I’ve never quite understood why the western consensus on China was the diametrical opposite of that on the USSR. As you say ” For a few years, we believed we could convert China to liberal democracy by deepening our economic engagement. The idea that membership of the WTO leads to democracy proved to be a naive expectation.”

    It was equally naive to think that just the opposite policy, ie keeping trade to a bare minimum, on the USSR would produce anything better. What we’ve ended up with is Putin and a very Nationalist anti- western Russia.

    This is not to say that we should lurch from one extreme to the other with China or even with present day Russia. But it would make sense to not be quite so starry eyed when it comes to trade relationships with China and not quite so cynical over potential trade relationships with Russia.

    What doesn’t make any sense is to allow the Chinese to buy up European infrastructure wholesale, such as we’ve seen in Greece. There’s no reason why Greece should have to turn to China for a source of euros. The ECB can make as many as they like!

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