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Sanctions work. Or at least they do when it comes to defusing a Tory backbench rebellion over China. That’s the lingering suspicion after the government won a tight vote on an amendment to the Trade Bill tonight, with a narrow majority of 18.
The rebels’ proposal, to impose tighter parliamentary judicial oversight on trade deals with nations deemed to have committed genocide, was aimed squarely at Beijing. Some 27 backbenchers, including former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, backed the plan despite hours of pressure from the whips.
Yet a close look at the voting lists shows that the government’s majority was exactly the same as the number of Tory MPs (18) who didn’t vote either way. I understand there were in fact around 13 Tory active abstainers. If a big chunk of them could have been persuaded to go the whole way, Boris Johson would have seen his majority wiped out.
And for those waverers, it’s not outlandish to think their decision not to rebel was swayed by an eleventh hour decision by Dominic Raab to slap sanctions on key senior Chinese officials involved in the mass internment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province. What made the vote so tight was Labour and other parties pushing hard for tougher action.
Now, it’s worth pointing out, as Raab did, that the whole of the EU had also today slapped sanctions on the officials (following the lead of the US and Canada). Labour claimed the UK had waited for Brussels to act first, while Raab countered that it was wrong to suggest “the concerted and unprecedented action of 30 countries is somehow tied up with the UK’s domestic legislative timetable” on the Trade Bill.
Yet the timing of the sanctions, and the way they allowed the foreign secretary to denounce Beijing, certainly didn’t harm the whips’ case that rebelling was a step too far. Some key China hawks like Tom Tugendhat (who had wondered why Raab didn’t use the word “genocide” today) didn’t vote against the rebel amendment – but they didn’t vote for it either.
Of course, one of the reasons that Raab’s words about European-level human rights and trade caught fire last week was precisely because they came off the back of an Integrated Review that several Tory backbenchers felt pulled its punches on China. While the foreign secretary had said that he would never want a free trade deal with nations that were “beyond the pale”, it was the idea of him enlarging the perimeter of that moral fence based on “growth markets of the future” that sparked concern.
And despite the tougher words against Beijing today, those fears had already been heightened earlier this month when the Times reported Raab’s words at a Conservative Friends of the Chinese event alongside the Chinese deputy ambassador to London. “We want to trade with our Chinese friends,” he said. If there was more respect for “international obligations that the Chinese government has signed up to...there’s no reason to think that we couldn’t deepen our trading relationship”, even with a free-trade agreement one day.
Brexit is one big driver behind the need to cut more trade deals. That said, EU countries like Germany have long focused on trade with Beijing as a priority, while claiming that human rights are also important. And that difficult balance was underlined by both Theresa May and Philip Hammond in evidence to the National Security Strategy Committee on Monday.
May’s most waspish words were reserved for Gavin Williamson and his alleged leak activities undermining the National Security Committee. Even this security-conscious former PM, who approved Chinese investment in Hinkley Point and granted a limited role for Huawei in our 5G network, didn’t waver from her belief that the UK could not “shut China out”.
But it was Hammond who was perhaps the boldest, hinting that trade with Beijing was not just desirable but almost inevitable. The ex-chancellor even suggested there was too much naive “optimism” in “assuming that the Chinese will allow us, as it were, an à la carte approach to the menu of relationships” on trade and human rights.
That sounded bluntly like either we pick trade or human rights, as increasingly Beijing won’t let us “balance” both. And Hammond speaks for a sizeable number of Tories who quietly think trade is the priority. (Note that even ex-Lib Dem leader Vince Cable told the New Statesman podcast this week the UK shouldn’t meddle in China’s territorial backyard). With the UK hosting the global climate talks this year, Boris Johnson also needs the Chinese to help him get an historic breakthrough on the environment.
Hammond put his finger on the real problem, which is that the West has never before dealt with an enemy (although he used the diplospeak of “strategic challengers”) that had different values but had similar economic strength. “We’ve been rather used to dealing with strategic challengers that are economically inferior to us [aka Russia]. This is going to require a wholly different way of thinking”. After the government’s narrow win tonight, that thinking is still unclear.