Last week, Prime Minister Theresa May left behind her warring Cabinet to travel to China on her mission to establish ‘Global Britain’ as the Brexit negotiations trudge on. Accompanied by International Trade Secretary Liam Fox and the largest-ever UK trade delegation, the Prime Minister was looking to reignite the so-called ‘golden-era’ of UK-China relations that the two countries experienced when David Cameron and George Osborne were at the helm in Downing Street.
A renewed trading relationship – though one that even Liam Fox has admitted can be improved whilst remaining in the Customs Union – is important, but the Government should also be using its dialogue with China to raise its concerns over human rights. Indeed, China’s desire to trade with us is arguably the only leverage we have. To Theresa May’s credit, she went to China pledging to raise Hong Kong and human rights concerns with her Chinese counterparts. However, come the end of her trip, the state-run Global Times newspaper praised the Prime Minister for having “sidestepped” her desire to publicly challenge China over human rights.
China’s progress in some areas, such as a new resolve to tackle climate change, should be welcomed. But the Government should not shy away from challenging Beijing over the country’s human rights record. In 2013, the UK was the first country to produce a National Action Plan to implement the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which was launched by William Hague with a great fanfare. With echoes of Robin Cook’s “ethical foreign policy” the then Foreign Secretary said that human rights would be “at the heart of British foreign policy”. This was not, however, borne out by the Government’s behaviour. It was impossible, for example, to get David Cameron to answer straightforward questions on whether he’d raised human rights concerns during a visit to Saudi Arabia back in 2012.
We know that China uses its trade negotiations with other countries to promote its political designs. For example, when Norway re-established ties with China in 2016, after a frosty period following the Dalai Lama being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, it was only possible because the Norwegian Government committed itself to the ‘One China’ policy, which precludes any support for Tibet.
The EU, with the UK as a member, has long inserted human rights clauses into its trade agreements, and, although the mechanism for enforcement is imperfect, trade sanctions were imposed on the likes of Zimbabwe and Iran when human rights violations occurred. By leaving the Customs Union the UK Government wants the freedom to carve out its own trade agreements. But after Theresa May’s acquiescence in Beijing last week, it would appear we cannot have much hope of the UK Government asserting itself in future conversations with China.
When questioned about the Business and Human Rights Action Plan in the Commons last year, the International Trade Secretary seemed to have barely heard of it. Human rights simply aren’t on his agenda. As recently as April 2017, he praised the “shared values” that he believes the UK has with Rodrigo Duterte – nicknamed “the Punisher” – the Philippine leader whose war on drugs has killed 7,000 of his own people. And we are all aware of his close links with the Sri Lankan regime during the time of President Rajapaksa and human rights violations against the Tamil population.
Of course if the UK were to remain in the Customs Union we would be in a much stronger position when it comes to raising human rights with countries of concern, as part of the world’s largest trading bloc. In the absence of this, we must ensure that Parliament has proper scrutiny of future trade deals, so that we can properly hold the Government to account.