‘I see China’s rise as an opportunity not just for the people of this country but for Britain and the world.’
– David Cameron, 2013
By 2050 China is expected to overtake the US and assume the position as the world’s largest economy. The road to 2050 may be a long one but significant changes over the next fifteen to twenty years are going to change the world as we know it. If Britain is to maintain its role as a leading actor in international organisations and global politics more generally, it needs to prepare for the impending shift. Those who care about Britain’s relationships in the global village should consider and examine party policies on China wisely. Today, China is the world’s largest manufacturer, and global dependency on Beijing is growing. The party (or parties) chosen to form the next government in May will take the reins at a time of tremendous opportunity and importance. How do our political parties plan to approach the rise of China and the end of Pax Americana?
China is important and so is how Britain approaches it. Perhaps as the trans-Atlantic alliance becomes one of many significant world alliances as opposed to a defining one, Britain’s relationship with the rising great power of China signals an opportunity for the UK to pick a place in the world.
The balance for Britain is two-fold: human rights, and trade. As much as dealing with Party rhetoric is a task, it is important for voters to pay attention to the China challenge, and what Parties say on it regarding both of these aspects. As much as American hegemony in all sorts of areas has helped shape our lives over the past 50 years, so does the potential for Chinese hegemony look set to over the next century.
The Conservative Party while in government have had patchy relations with China. The past five years have been a case in point for the difficulty which exists when trying to balance discussing human rights issues with China yet at the same time maintaining favourable relations. When David Cameron met the Dalai Lama in 2012, relations between Britain and China froze. China punished Cameron’s government by cancelling a number of high profile meetings between ministers and Chinese officials; since this point the message has come home and the government has behaved in a more expectant, China-friendly manner. For all the rhetoric Cameron supplied with the lead up to his 2013 tour of China, human rights advocates have seen Cameron’s “full political weight” behind Sino-European trade agreements but not on human rights. Sensitivities toward China were expressed over the 2014 protests in Hong Kong (the Special Administrative Region over which Britain holds joint guarantees with China); avoiding antagonising Beijing is the priority. Pragmatism usurps ethicality.
Labour have been especially critical of Conservative Party policy with regards to China. Ed Miliband has been quick with the rhetoric, a ‘race to the top’ not ‘to the bottom’ is the key. If Labour wins in 2015 they will focus on high tech industrial competition with China; to compete on a basis of low wage, labour intense manufacturing is bad for Britain. Labour have a further focus and that is on the real need for multilateral cooperation and trust between great powers; Britain and Western powers must not be complacent in their post-Cold War outlook. Douglas Alexander, the Shadow Foreign Secretary has stressed the political importance of the West securing the cooperation of China; this is aside from trade relations. For the Labour Party, the European Union represents perhaps the most pivotal international organisation for Britain to pursue its ‘strategic and economic interests.’ When advocating continued British membership of the EU, Alexander cites Beijing, not Brussels as the deciding factor. This represents one of less shouted about reasons as to why Labour is so critical of the Conservative’s promise for a referendum. Not shirking away from the EU, Alexander advocates Britain helping to lead the EU rather than focusing on semantics over reform of the EU’s institutions. Labour continues to promote morality; human rights should be something Britain promotes despite economic or political barriers. How Labour sees this fitting in with maintaining trust and comfort, and not antagonising China in their dictation remains to be seen.
UKIP have had great insight into the relationship; Farage, quoted in 2013 discussed the “constraining” nature of the EU when it came to bilateral relations between China and Britain. The reality of the situation however means that if the UK is to not be subsumed by the leviathan that is the Chinese state, it needs a vehicle akin to the EU to play a significant part. Conversations on the EU-China trade agreement are significantly louder than that of any Britain-China one. Any discussion on human rights issues in China by UKIP, it seems, is always sandwiched between two criticisms of the EU.
And the Lib Dems? Well, they’ll be gone on May 7th, and we’ll have forgotten about them on May 8th, so does it really matter what they think?
By Jacob Cain, Junior Writer for Daily Political View.