By James Cleverly
Even when the emergencies of the day are seemingly all-consuming, it is vital never to lose sight of the biggest long-term questions. So, I propose to focus on a subject that will define our epoch and that is China and the UK’s policy towards it.
I’m often asked to express that policy in a single phrase, or to sum up China itself in one word, whether “threat”, or “partner”, or “adversary”.
And I want to start by explaining why that is impossible, impractical and – most importantly – unwise.
China is one of the few countries which can trace its existence back over two millennia, to 221 BC, when it was united by the Qin Dynasty.
Time and time again down the centuries, civil war or foreign invasions fractured China into rival kingdoms, but after every period of turmoil, China has always re-emerged. The opening line of the Chinese epic Romance of the Three Kingdoms describes this cycle: “Empires wax and wane; states cleave asunder and coalesce.”
And long before they coalesced into one polity, the Chinese people created their language and their civilisation. Their written characters appeared in the Shang Dynasty in the 2nd millennium BC. Their inventions – paper, printing, gunpowder, the compass – these things transformed the fortunes of the whole of humanity.
These innovations are the key to understanding why China’s economy was among the biggest in the world for 20 of the last 22 centuries, and why China, in 1820, comprised a third of global GDP – more than America, the UK and Europe combined.
Then calamities struck, one after another; some caused by foreign aggression; others coming from within China itself.
The deadliest of which was Mao’s famine, which claimed tens of millions of lives, more than any other famine in human history. Yet the last 45 years have seen another astonishing reversal.
By releasing the enterprising genius of its people, China has achieved the biggest and fastest economic expansion the world has ever known.
No less than 800 million people have lifted themselves out of poverty, in a nation that encompasses a fifth of all humanity and a vast area almost as large as continental Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals. So, forgive me when I say that no punchy catchphrase or plausible adjective can do justice to such a country or to any sensible approach towards it.
If you are looking for British foreign policy by soundbite, I’m afraid you will be disappointed. My starting point is a recognition of the depth and complexity of Chinese history and civilisation, and therefore, by extension, of our own policy. And I rest that policy on a series of premises, the first of which is that whatever our differences with China’s leaders, I rejoice in the fact that so many Chinese people have escaped poverty.
We do not live in a miserable zero-sum world: their gain is our gain. A stable, prosperous and peaceful China is good for Britain and good for the world.
Looking ahead, I reject any notion of inevitability. No one predicted China’s rapid rise from mass starvation to relative prosperity and today no-one can be sure that China’s economic juggernaut will roll on indefinitely.
Last year, for the first time since Mao’s death in 1976, China’s economy grew no faster than the world economy, meaning that China’s share of global GDP stayed constant in 2022.
And even if China does become the world’s largest economy in the coming decade, it may not hold that place for long, as a declining and ageing population weighs ever more heavily on future growth. Nor do I see anything inevitable about conflict between China and the United States and the wider West.
We are not compelled to be prisoners of what Graham Allison called the “Thucydides trap”, whereby a rising power follows the trajectory of ancient Athens, and collides head-on with an established superpower.
We have agency; we have choices; and so do our Chinese counterparts. Our task is to shape the course of future events, not succumb to fatalism. And we must face the inescapable reality that no significant global problem – from climate change to pandemic prevention, from economic instability to nuclear proliferation – can be solved without China.
To give up on dialogue with China would be to give up on addressing humanity’s greatest problems. Even worse, we would be ignoring salient facts, vital to our safety and our prosperity. As I speak, the biggest repository of health data in the world is in China. The biggest source of active ingredients for the world’s pharmaceuticals is in China. And the biggest source of carbon emissions is also in China.
Indeed, China has pumped more carbon into the atmosphere in the last 10 years than this country has since the dawn of the industrial revolution in the 18th century. How China regulates its data, how China develops its pharmaceuticals, how China conducts medical research, will be of seminal importance to the whole of humanity.
And whether or not China cuts its carbon emissions will probably make the difference between our planet avoiding the worst ravages of climate change, or suffering catastrophe. We have already learned to our cost how China’s handling of a pandemic can affect the entire world. So, have no doubt: decisions taken in Beijing are going to affect our lives.
Do we not owe it to ourselves to strive to influence those decisions in our own interests?
It would be clear and easy – and perhaps even satisfying – for me to declare some kind of new Cold War and say that our goal is to isolate China. It would be clear, it would be easy, it would be satisfying – and it would be wrong, because it would be a betrayal of our national interest and a willful misunderstanding of the modern world.
Indeed, this government will advance British interests directly with China, alongside our allies, while steadfastly defending our national security and our values. And we can expect profound disagreements; dealing with China I can assure you, is not for the fainthearted; they represent a ruthless authoritarian tradition utterly at odds with our own.
But we have an obligation to future generations to engage because otherwise we would be failing in our duty to sustain – and shape – the international order. Shirking that challenge would be a sign not of strength but of weakness.
Vladimir Putin never intended to demonstrate the power of a united West when he launched his onslaught against Ukraine. But our response shows that when Britain and America and Europe and our other partners across the world stand united, we are a match for anything.
We should have every confidence in our collective ability to engage robustly and also constructively with China, not as an end in itself, but to manage risks and produce results. And we have achieved results.
Let me give you some examples. In 2017 research, British research, convinced the Chinese agriculture ministry to act against the danger of antibiotic resistance by restricting colistin, an antibiotic used in animal feed. Sales fell by 90 percent, making everyone in the world safer.
Last year, our diplomats in China helped to persuade the authorities to amend a draft procurement law, improving the chances of UK companies bidding for contracts from state-owned enterprises.
This year, they secured licences worth £600 million for UK institutions to launch fund management companies in China.
Britain’s position as a founding member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank has also allowed us to influence China’s approach towards this new institution, preventing it from becoming a politicised extension of the Belt and Road Initiative.
China is the biggest shareholder of this bank, the bank is headquartered in Beijing, and yet within a week of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it froze every single project in Russia. But even though engagement can succeed, the truth is that a country like ours, devoted to liberty and democracy, will always be torn between our national interest in dealing with China and our abhorrence of Beijing’s abuses.
When we see how authoritarian states treat their own people, we wonder what they would do to us if they had the chance. And history teaches us that repression at home often translates into aggression abroad.
So our policy has to combine two currents: we must engage with China where necessary and be unflinchingly realistic about its authoritarianism. And that means never wavering from one clear principle.
We do not expect our disagreements with China to be swiftly overcome, but we do expect China to observe the laws and obligations that it has freely entered into.
So, as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, China has shouldered a special responsibility to uphold the UN Charter. As a party to the Joint Declaration, China has agreed to preserve Hong Kong’s freedom.
As a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to the Convention Against Torture and many other instruments of international law, China has accepted an array of obligations. And if China breaks them, we are entitled to say so and we are entitled to act – and we will – as we did when China dismantled the freedoms of Hong Kong, violating its own pledge, which is why we gave nearly three million of Hong Kong’s people a path to British citizenship.
Peaceful co-existence has to begin with respecting fundamental laws and institutions, including the UN Charter, which protects every country against invasion.
And that means every country: a Chinese diplomat in Paris cannot, and must not, and will not, decide the legal status of sovereign countries.
By attacking Ukraine, Russia has provided an object lesson in how a UN member state should not behave. And Putin has also trampled upon China’s own stated principles of non-interference and respect for sovereignty.
A powerful and responsible nation cannot simply abstain when this happens, or draw closer to the aggressor, or aid and abet that aggression. A country that wants a respected place at the apex of the world order should stand up for its own principles, and keep its solemn obligations to defend the laws at the very foundation of that order.
This responsibility goes hand-in-hand with China’s right to play a global role commensurate with its size and its history. And the rights of a sovereign nation like Ukraine cannot be eradicated just because the eradicator enjoys a “strategic partnership” with China. So, British policy towards China has three pillars.
First, we will strengthen our national security protections wherever Beijing’s actions pose a threat to our people or our prosperity.
We are not going to be silent about interference in our political system, or technology theft, or industrial sabotage. We will do more to safeguard academic freedom and research. And when there are tensions with other objectives, we will always put our national security first.
Hence we are building our 5G network in the most secure way, not the fastest or the cheapest way. China’s leaders define their core interests – and it’s natural that they do.
But we have core interests too, and one of them is to promote the kind of world that we want to live in, where people everywhere have a universal human right to be treated with dignity, free from torture, free from slavery, free from arbitrary detention.
And there is nothing uniquely “Western” about these values: torture hurts just as much whoever it is inflicted upon.
So when Britain condemns the mass incarceration of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang, I hope our Chinese counterparts do not believe their own rhetoric that we are merely seeking to interfere in their domestic affairs.
Just as we should try harder to understand China, I hope that Chinese officials will understand that when their government builds a 21st-century version of the gulag archipelago, locking up over a million people at the height of this campaign, often for doing nothing more than observing their religion, this stirs something deep within us.
When the United Nations finds that China’s repression in Xinjiang may – and I quote – “constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity”, our revulsion is heartfelt and shared unanimously across our country and beyond. We are not going to let what is happened in Xinjiang drop or be brushed aside.
We cannot ignore this simply because this is happening on the other side of a frontier, or that to raise it might be considered unharmonious or impolite.
Second, the UK will deepen our cooperation and strengthen our alignment with our friends and partners in the Indo-Pacific and across the world. Our aim will be to bolster collective security, deepen commercial links, uphold international law, and balance and compete where necessary.
So I’m delighted that Britain will soon be the 12th member of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, reinforcing our trading ties with rapidly growing economies.
Already we are the only European country to be a Dialogue Partner of the Association of South-East Asian Nations. We are deepening our long-term partnership with India. And we are developing the next generation of our aircraft alongside Japan. And we’ve joined the United States to help Australia to build nuclear-powered conventionally-armed submarines under the AUKUS partnership. Together with our friends, the UK will strive for openness and transparency in the Indo-Pacific.
At this moment, China is carrying out the biggest military build-up in peacetime history. In a period of just four years – between 2014 and 2018 – China launched new warships exceeding the combined tonnage of the Royal Navy’s entire active fleet. And a we see this happening; as we watch new bases appearing in the South China Sea and beyond, we are bound to ask ourselves: what is it all for?
Why is China making this colossal military investment?
And if we are left to draw our own conclusions, prudence dictates that we must assume the worst. And yet of course we could be wrong: it is possible that we will be too cautious and too pessimistic.
The UK and our allies are prepared to be open about our presence in the Indo-Pacific. And I urge China to be equally open about the doctrine and intent behind its military expansion, because transparency is surely in everyone’s interests and secrecy can only increase the risk of tragic miscalculation.
Which brings me to Taiwan.
Britain’s longstanding position is that we want to see a peaceful settlement of the differences across the Strait. Because about half of the world’s container ships pass through these vital waters every year, laden with goods bound for Europe and the far corners of the world.
Taiwan is a thriving democracy and a crucial link in global supply chains, particularly for advanced semiconductors.
A war across the Strait would not only be a human tragedy, it would destroy world trade worth $2.6 Trillion, according to Nikkei Asia. No country could shield itself from the repercussions. Distance would offer no protection from this catastrophic blow to the global economy – and least China’s most of all.
I shudder to contemplate the human and financial ruin that would follow. So it’s essential that no party takes unilateral action to change the status quo. And the third pillar of our policy is to engage directly with China, bilaterally and multilaterally, to preserve and create open, constructive and stable relations, reflecting China’s global importance.
We believe in a positive trade and investment relationship, whilst avoiding dependencies in critical supply chains. We want British companies to do business with China – just as American, ASEAN, Australian and EU companies currently do – and we will support their efforts to make the terms work for both sides, pushing for a level playing field and fairer competition. We have an interest in continuing to benefit from Chinese investment, but we don’t want the long arm of the Chinese Communist Party reaching towards the central nervous system of our country. And in the past, we haven’t always struck the perfect balance between openness and security.
Now we are gaining the right legal powers to safeguard what we must and be open where we can. Above all, we need to be properly skilled for the challenge, so we are doubling our funding for China’s capabilities across government; we’ve allocated the resources to build a new British Embassy in Beijing. I’m determined to reach agreement with China’s government so this can proceed.
So our approach to China must combine all of these currents,protecting our national security, aligning with our friends, engaging and trading with China where our interests converge, avoiding policy by soundbite, and always standing up for the universal values which Britain holds dear.
I fervently believe there are no inevitabilities: the future is ours to shape, in the humble knowledge that how we respond to this challenge now will help define the modern world.