Catherine West: The Tories' Confusion Over China Has Undermined The UK's Global Power

"There remain significant areas of co-operation between our two nations — but we need to accept that we will soon compete with China", says the Labour frontbencher.
Lintao Zhang via Getty Images

As a Mandarin speaker, I was lucky enough to spend time living in Nanjing in the 1990s, where I witnessed the beginnings of the economic miracle which transformed China into a global power.

Since then, successive Conservative governments have failed to react with a strategic or consistent approach as Chinese policy has fundamentally changed with President Xi at the helm.

With Xi now handed a third term this trend will continue, further challenging the status quo. As we have seen on the streets of Britain, with the appalling attack on Hong Kong protestors at the Chinese consulate in Manchester, this new, more assertive China will increasingly impact us here in the UK, so we must be firm in our response and coherent in our approach.

For the UK this is a stark challenge. From the erosion of Hong Kong’s liberty to the treatment of the Uyghurs, China under Xi’s leadership has continued to abuse human rights, as confirmed by the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner. At the same time, Xi has attempted to challenge international law in the South China sea, and developed a growing network of diplomatic ties in the global south.

China seeks to dominate international forums such as the UN, counting on the support of others to silence criticism and to reinterpret the rules-based international order to create an alternative system which favours autocracy over democracy and human rights. As the director of GCHQ has said, the combination of great strength and fear “is driving China into actions that could represent a huge threat to us all”.

Faced with this challenge, we have been plagued by a strategically incoherent approach from a succession of Tory governments. They have been talking tough on human rights while doing little to back this up with tangible policies, sending an inconsistent message to China and our partners.

Under the Conservatives, the number of fluent Mandarin speakers being trained in the Foreign Office is a pitiful 14 per year, the deployment of personnel to the vital Pacific region has shrunk, and the oft-mentioned “China strategy” is nowhere to be seen.

At a time of growing Chinese strength, the government is tarnishing Britain’s credibility by breaking international law itself. Their drift and confusion undermines our global position, leaves our allies unable to rely on British support, and risks our technological advantages, while Chinese companies single out emerging technological advantages in areas such as semi-conductors and bio-tech.

We should be doing better.

Across the world progressive governments have taken the lead in passing legislation, such as the CHIPS Act in the US, to protect sensitive industries and nourish our technological advantage, while others – such as the new Labor government in Australia – have redoubled their efforts to reengage with countries courted by Beijing.

The UK has been noticeable in its absence, while the Chinese state continues to play a role in the UK’s nuclear capacity, despite the serious national security concerns that Labour and others have repeatedly raised.

Labour’s commitment to a new, publicly owned Great British Energy company will change this, providing energy security without the risks to national security posed by a reliance on Chinese investment.

There remain significant areas of cooperation between our two nations, with climate change chief among them. But we need to be realistic and accept that in the years ahead we will be in competition with China across a range of different fields, with the Chinese Communist Party an increasing challenge to our allies in the region who risk falling under repressive Beijing’s influence.

Labour is alive to this challenge. We will address head-on the challenges and competition we face with a full audit of Britain’s relations with China and Whitehall’s capabilities to deal with it, to ensure our economy and our public services are protected as part of our national security.

We firmly believe in supporting our allies, and we are committed to the AUKUS partnership with the US and Australia, alongside our network of alliances in the region. Working with countries which share our values of democracy, human rights and respect for the rules based international order is a cornerstone of any progressive foreign policy and is vital in facing down growing Chinese aggression.

We have underlined our continued support for the vital tools which have too often been overlooked by this government, from the British Council to the BBC World Service, and we will ensure that these tools form part of a concerted and strategic approach to foreign policy.

A Labour government will be serious, consistent, and level-headed about our approach to China and both the challenges and opportunities it brings.

Catherine West is the shadow minister for Asia and the Pacific and the Labour MP for Hornsey and Wood Green.


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