China: the new rules of engagement for Britain

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly has rejected claims UK should limit Chinese cooperation and dependence

James Cleverly
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said a British clash with China was not inevitable
(Image credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

For years, a debate has simmered about Britain’s policy towards China, said Juliet Samuel in The Times. The hawks say Beijing is an “untrustworthy menace”, and that we should limit our cooperation and dependence.

But it is the doves – who see China as a “golden goose” for British exporters – who are now in the ascendant in the Government. That was made clear last week, when James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, gave a speech in which he reasserted a policy of “engagement” with Beijing.

‘Engagement has not benefited Hong Kong’

Warships may be massing in the seas around China; jets may be circling over Taiwan. But Cleverly says a clash with China is not inevitable, and that with constructive dialogue, we can exert influence over its rulers. Yet the only evidence he could cite for this was that in 2017, British mandarins helped persuade Beijing to use less antibiotics in its animal feed.

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The people of Hong Kong have not benefited from our policy of engagement, said Andrew Neil in the Daily Mail. They’ve seen the freedoms negotiated before the British handover in 1997 “swept away” – and the “architect of their repression”, vice-president Han Zheng, rewarded with a seat at the coronation. Cleverly said that climate change can’t be tackled without Chinese engagement. Perhaps. But so far, all we have to show for that “is the massive expansion of Beijing’s coal-fired electricity capacity”. He also cited pandemic prevention – yet China won’t even share its Covid data with the world.

‘Impossibility of decoupling’

Equally “risible” was his idea that the UK might persuade Beijing to be transparent about its military build-up, said Stephen Daisley in The Spectator. Instead of pretending that we want to make China a better global citizen, which just makes us look weak and hypocritical, London should be upfront about its self-interest: “we need China on-side or our post-Brexit prosperity-in-Asia strategy is buggered”.

The UK is not alone in seeking a middle path in its dealings with China. The EU and the US are looking at “de-risking” strategies, said The Economist, which acknowledge the impossibility of “decoupling” from a major global power and trading partner. These include restricting the export of sensitive technologies, supporting domestic industries to reduce China’s dominance of vital supply chains, and banning the import of goods made with forced labour. The problem is, President Xi does not want China to be de-risked, and is likely to push back hard against such efforts. He has already made it difficult for Western firms to audit their supply chains for abuses. “Decoupling will not be easily avoided.”

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