Opinion: Reflections on UK-China relations under the new Lib Con Coalition Government

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

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  • hilarious how some people want china to use its so called influence on north korea,burma etc to bring about political reform when china itself is a highly repressive dictatorship. sad to see so many westerners grovel to china ,similar to politicians and businessmen doing the same to hitler in the 30s and the soviet union in the 40s and 50s. engage with tyrannies and they’ll reform. no they don’t ,they recognize your weakness and laugh at you.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 18th Jun '10 - 5:06pm

    “There is merit in the argument that human rights should be more broadly defined to include socio-economic rights” Yes there is – but it cannot be taken to exclude all the other human rights, or be used as a counterweight so that those rights are somehow cancelled out by economic improvements.

    Strangely enough I cannot think of many cases where political dictatorships (and that what China still is) have leaned to mend their ways as a result of “constructive dialogue” rather than threats or sanctions, which they tend to understand rather better given that it is their usual modus operandii. Perhaps Merlene could identify some examples?

    Perhaps also we don’t want China or anyone else for that matter to become the next superpower. The whole idea of countries being able to exercise undue power over others would appear to run counter to all liberal principles of which I am aware. As well as its influence over Tibet, Burma and North Korea, I’m afraid a rather nasty story is developing regarding China’s influence in Africa as well. Perhaps all this demonstrates what happens when you engage with China from a position of weakness.

  • Geoff, to say China is “not in any way a liberal state” is a little imprecise and unfair. While freedoms relating to political organisation and expression and access to certain sources of information are restricted, China is much less authoritarian on many personal freedoms when compared with, for example, Saudi Arabia, Singapore or, on some issues, the UK. Smoking and drinking in public are permitted almost everywhere, for example, though some cities are restricting smoking in a limited number of designated areas. Since the 1980s there has been a steady increase in religious freedoms (as long as the religious group is not politically active) and, as well as gay and lesbian relationships being legal, same-sex marriage bills have been proposed twice since 2003, though not yet passed by Congress.

    Political progress will be only be made with China by the UK being patient and respectful, not seeking to transplant European/US democracy and values in one fell swoop and taking the time and care to understand the complexity of the country rather than perpetuating oversimplified stereotypes.

    This is not to say that everything is fine in the way China is governed and we should engage China diplomatically and lobby for human rights in a constructive manner, but the depiction of China in our media and in many politicians speeches is often woefully ill-informed and tinged with red-terror, which makes their government less likely to see us as credible negotiators and does us no PR favours with their visiting students!

  • Patrick Smith 18th Jun '10 - 5:33pm

    This item by Merlene Emerson is crucially important, as it about the most significant new emergent world economy and potential superpower in the 21st C whose modern constitution is a product of many centuries of autocratic culture.

    Our ` Coalition Government’ must make every effort to trade and forge important human and diplomatic relations,with China, over the next years.

    Trade and human rights and sphere of global influence are all woven into the same question with the `China Question’.. Can any one world power really understand China`s foreign policy and how it evolve in the future?

    China is also becoming a key player in expanding its markets in goods and services in Africa where western influence has decreased and is possibly set to wane in the light of current `National Deficits’ across the EU.

    Vince Cable in `The Storm’-The World Economic Crisis and What it Means’ makes the astute observation in his account that the `rapid emergence of China lies at the heart of current global financial instability’

    China is also the biggest `undemocratic’ rising global economy and I suggest has an opaque set of economic and foreign policy objectives that are a constant topic for scrutiny.

    China has a janus face set on a strong desire for ongoing economic international influence that is constantly swinging between its voracious appetite for global trade and home market consumption.This is weighted against an abysmal human rights record that has been the subject of international condemnation for decades and by many Chinese emigres.

  • I am sorry, but the pivot of British foreign relations must be Europe, and not China. Time and time again those who have extrapolated present trends to predict the future have been slapped in the face by history, and the present hysteria over China is intensely reminiscent of past periods of hysteria over the “inevitable” domination of the Soviet Union, of Germany (both under fascism and under imperialism), and more. In all of these systems a facade of dynamism has covered up a system knit together by endemic corruption and incompetence, and China is increasingly showing itself to be no different.

    The central focus of our foreign policy must be building and completing the EU project. The next century will either be the century of Europe or the century of world instability and war.

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