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British foreign policy and China: Pragmatism or short-sightedness?

Anna Tan

23 June 2020

In his 1941 State of Union address, US President Franklin D Roosevelt outlined the Four Fundamental Freedoms that every person in the world is entitled to enjoy: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. These four principles would later serve as the foundation upon which the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights was formed, ushering in a new era in which state human rights violations are a matter of concern that permeate far beyond the sovereign territories of a state. Contemporary human rights were borne out of a pragmatic concern that our ideals and principles at a certain level become a personal matter; since without human rights, there can be no human security.

The end of Cold War also curtailed, to a significant extent, the precedence of ideological battles in human rights diplomacy over the value of our fundamental freedoms for idealist concerns. Our post-Cold War world lacks such kinds of predictable approaches and hence more uncertainty with regards to the international order. In a post-COVID-19 world and amid a crumbling Pax Americana under Trump, the traditional state advocates of human rights are now Missing In Action. This is an erosion of the liberal world order which is eating itself from within, with President Trump projecting an image of the USA is quite the opposite of most of its traditional ideals. Across the Atlantic, Brexit has further distorted unity both in the Anglosphere and within Europe.

We are now in a situation where countries are divided on this question, with some, facing Covid recessions, more concerned about the economic damage if we do not appease Xi Jinping’s China, citing realpolitik as a justification. In this regard, Professor Kerry Brown argues that given Brexit, the UK should reconsider its stance towards the Hong Kong crisis, given the country’s weak economic relations with China. That is not to say that relations with Australia and New Zealand are not anything positive, but we have to consider fostering free trade relations across the D-10 member states, and with the EU through the D-10. This is a more promising option than just bilateral trade agreements with China, given that the Huawei agreement is going to be phased out in the next three years.

But taking a passive stance citing economic reasons clearly misses the point of why we are facing this crisis in the first place. China’s repression of the fundamental freedoms of its own scientists and academics is undeniably part of the reason we’re in the middle of a global pandemic today. This doesn’t mean we can disregard China's ability to be one of the most powerful economies in the world without civil and political liberation as illegitimate. But the staggering boom of China’s economy over the past couple of decades has simultaneously engendered substantial inequalities, as well as excessive environmental pollution and abuse. This environmental abuse is another factor which has led to an increased risk of animal to human disease transmission and therefore the chances of deadly viruses like Covid-19 emerging.

The solution clearly cannot lie in cowing to repressive regimes because of an economic threat, because this crisis is a reminder that they already threaten our wealth and stability. If we cannot advocate for the universal respect of fundamental freedoms, economic repercussions, like those we have been experiencing will no doubt be a recurring theme in the near future. This is a time where tighter relations with the West and its Eastern allies (e.g. Taiwan, South Korea, Japan) should be formed, and not a time for Europe to fragment in its approach to the People’s Republic of China.

The formation of a Democratic 10 (D-10) and the potential intake of British National (Overseas), or BN(O), passport holders from Hong Kong (combined with potential ‘burden-sharing’ agreement amongst the Five-Eyes) is of course a positive step forward. But the latter fails to address the rights of the remaining Hong Kongers, and most importantly, should not be a panacea to the growing Chinese aggression in its blatant disregard for international norms. That is not to argue that this development has not been provoked by the Trump Administration, but my point is that this can be a recurring theme not just for Hong Kong but in any part of the world. If so, should our response be the same? The recent decision to merge the Department for International Development (DFID) with the Foreign Office is another example of how not to respond. Though a little premature to say, this could lessen the UK’s room of manoeuvrability and upset future British diplomacy. In so doing, it could also render the idea of “Global Britain” an oxymoron, given China’s usage of COVID to increase its influence in Africa, for instance. British foreign policy is becoming more inconsistent by the day, whilst China’s policies remain consistently expansionist.

Yet China’s new national security legislation for Hong Kong might just mark the beginning of the end of Hong Kong as we know it. This new legislation is more of a distraction from Xi’s own mishandlings of Covid in China itself, which has evidently hurt his standing amongst the elites of his own party.

“Pragmatists” who justify the incentive for us to appease President Xi in order to safeguard the financial repercussions of Brexit and of COVID-19 are too short-sighted. Those who are truly pragmatic will consider the long-term implications of our free societies and our very own public health and economic welfare; spurring our foreign policies towards China on to become more sophisticated and paying more close attention to human rights.

Over the past year, we have seen the relentless resistance of the people of Hong Kong against the Chinese state’s incursions. The more active approach that has now been taken towards creating a D-10 should extend to Hong Kong as well. If not, the crisis there is bound to produce refugee flows and further destabilise an already volatile region. This would be miscalculation at a time when Western influence in Southeast Asia is still lagging behind that of China. At the same time, a Cold War with China must remain off the table.

The real pragmatic solutions should lie somewhere in between. There should be more craftsmanship put into our foreign policies. – Anna Tan

China’s declaration of its NSL in Hong Kong is clearly against the Basic Law that governs the city. Insofar as China lacks territorial legitimacy (at least until 2047) and the British by a supermajority in Hong Kong hold political legitimacy, there is little reason why this cannot be an advantage to British foreign policy. Commercial interests count too in the picture.

To this point, Western states and to some extent, its allies, have considered that the effects of China’s unique form of governance (which is firmly opposed to human rights) was confined to its national borders. Yet, this pandemic has aptly demonstrated the far-reaching impact of China’s illiberalism at home. As such, Western policies ought to revise their hitherto assumptions and economic relationship vis-à-vis the CCP regime. So too must we reconsider our assumption that China’s diplomacy will be more scrupulous given Deng Xiaoping’s guiding philosophy of ‘hide your strength and bide your time’. Clearly, this time has now passed. China’s new position in the world order means that it can afford more knee-jerk reactions such as what we have in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and now COVID-19. It’s only a matter of time Taiwan will be facing a similar kind of threat.

This is significant despite the facts that while Donald Trump may not be re-elected in November and that Asia’s future will still considerably depend on Western financial institutions and trade relations. The lack of a cohesive strategy in the European and Anglosphere will mean that our intergovernmental organisations such as the United Nations will be more vulnerable to be dictated by China and Russia.

At present, the ball remains in Britain’s court and we still get to call much of the shots even without the leverage of the EU. Through the D-10, one can be hopeful that the EU can still continue to render a force of unity and perhaps learn that referendums can seriously backfire. It is not to say that illiberalism anywhere will always affect us – it really depends on the power and reach of the country we are dealing with. While human rights may not be at the forefront of foreign policy-making, what we have now with COVID-19 is already a net financial loss resulted by human rights violations in China. Realpolitik should seek to include human rights in its approach given the reciprocal implications on our fundamental freedoms, national security, and economic prosperity. It is unclear whether the British government realises this.

Anna Tan is a postgraduate and a student ambassador for Global Affairs at King’s College London. She is also a Series Editor on Strife Blog and Journal of the Department of War Studies and has formerly worked for UNDP and the American Red Cross.

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