The UK's Misplaced China Policy

The state visit of China’s Communist Party general secretary, Xi Jinping, to the United Kingdom has had trappings that only Great Britain could deliver: a speech to the oldest parliament in the world, dinner with the queen at Buckingham Palace, and a visit to Chequers, Prime Minister David Cameron’s country retreat. More important, a Chinese state-owned company has gained entrée into the British nuclear power industry, a development that experts have warned presents a security risk.

The UK wants to become China’s “best partner in the West,” an objective set out by George Osborne, the chancellor of the Exchequer, who is taking the lead on China policy. Great Britain’s approach—engagement with a pronounced emphasis on trade, at the expense of human rights—resembles America’s policy of the 1990s, but with important differences.

First, the geopolitical situation is much changed. An economically and militarily powerful China is leading a challenge to the dominance of liberal democracy as a global norm. Second, the UK does not have the strategic responsibilities in Asia that the US does. 

When the US embraced “engagement” in the 1990s, the Cold War had just ended. The idea in fashion was the Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history.” According to Fukuyama, that liberal democracy had emerged victorious from the competition of ideologies.

This intellectual claim dovetailed with politicians’ eagerness to pursue trade and investment and let them justify it as helping along China’s inevitable trend toward political reform and integration with the world.

Engagement made tough diplomacy and sanctions unnecessary, delivering benefits without effort, sacrifice, or confrontation. President Clinton “delinked” trade from human rights and eventually made China’s full, unconditional trade relations with the US permanent. This idea served US business interests, especially the tech industry, and was bipartisan. (The move also damaged human rights as a priority in US foreign policy across the board, a position which the 2012 adoption of visa and financial sanctions for Russia has only begun to turn around.)

It should have been obvious then, and it certainly is now, that Chinese Communist leaders have no interest in abandoning power to this purported sweep of history.

The second difference between Great Britain’s overtures to China and America’s is that Great Britain’s leaders are unburdened by strategic responsibilities, such as the defense of Taiwan or the security of Asia’s sea-lanes, both threatened by Beijing. That was quite obvious when London flirted with helping to lift the EU arms embargo, imposed in response to June 4th massacre of the Tiananmen democracy protesters of 1989.

America’s engagement policy was a bad idea that Washington is now reconsidering. Great Britain has even less justification for it. Alone, it doesn’t have the power to stand up to China. Although it has not had a leadership role in Asia since the end of its empire, its close ally the United States does. Its lack of power does not absolve it of responsibility. London would do well to get together with Washington and European leaders to identify a better approach for the years to come. 

OG Image: