Given the controversy roiling Hong Kong this week about the arrangements proposed for choosing the next Chief Executive of the territory, the news that Chinese parliamentarians had warned their British counterparts not to get involved has perhaps looked like a bit of a sideshow. But the debate about the letter from the Chinese foreign affairs committee to its UK equivalent offers an interesting window on Britain's position in the world today.
At first glance the Foreign Affairs Committee looks like an anachronism. Surely it is deeply arrogant - a throwback to a Gladstonian imperialist mindset - for the British Parliament to presume that it can investigate and pronounce on the affairs of Russia and the Ukraine, Turkey, Somalia (to take some recent examples) and a host of other nations around the world. As the Chinese suggested in their correspondence, isn't it right that Britain knows its place and does not seek to interfere in the internal affairs and politics of other countries?
That might be a fair point if not for two facts. First, Britain has a Foreign and Commonwealth Office which takes an interest in what is going on in other nations and regions and how they impact on British interests. The Foreign Affairs Committee oversees the FCO, and it is very careful to make clear that its inquiries are into 'UK Government policy on the Kurdistan Region of Iraq' (for example), rather than into Kurdistan per se. Sir Richard Ottaway, the estimable Chairman of the Committee, has said that the Committee has every right to look at what the British Government is doing to make sure that the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong is respected, and to examine the state of the UK's broader relations with Hong Kong. He surely has a point.
The second fact is that every country has diplomats and embassies and typically a foreign office devoted to its relations with other countries. And most of those countries have Parliaments with committees which oversee this area of their government's policy. Take the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs, which in recent weeks has held hearings India, Egypt and the whole of Latin America, to name just a few [http://foreignaffairs.house.gov/legislation/hearings-list]. China itself has long taken an interest in other nations: for example under the Qing dynasty the Lifan Yuan (sometimes translated as the Office of Barbarian Control) oversaw Chinese relations with nations and territories in inner Asia. Today China not surprisingly has a very active foreign ministry - and a parliamentary foreign affairs committee which presumably does a fair amount of 'meddling' of its own.
This spat between British and Chinese parliamentarians may blow over - but it could also escalate, particularly if tensions rise on the streets of Hong Kong. But what it has shown already is the assertiveness of China these days, and the meekness UK. As the Chinese parliamentarians implied, few politicians in London and Beijing want this controversy to interfere with the broader UK-China relationship - a relationship these days in which the UK looks to China (rather than the other way around) for trade, for support in diplomatic forums, for investment, and more and more for expertise and know-how. Perhaps keeping this in mind Sir Richard has been emollient, saying that whilst his Committee would press on he does not "particularly want to irritate the Chinese", and that it was possible "that my committee will decide that actually the Chinese are behaving perfectly reasonably". We'll have to wait and see.
Whatever stance the Foreign Affairs Committee takes it is clear that Britain as a whole can ill-afford poor relations with China. The impact of Chinese froideur after David Cameron met the Dalai Lama in 2012 [http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/david-cameron/10040319/David-Camerons-rift-with-China-could-cost-UK-billions.html] told everyone that the balance of power has shifted; that reality was acknowledged in the strenuousness of the UK Government's efforts subsequently to kiss and make up. Having got relations back on an even keel no one is keen to rock the boat again. So If anyone expects the UK to disagree very vigorously with China in the near future, whether over Hong Kong or anything else, they are likely to be very disappointed.