Clinton builds relations with China in strategic talks

US-China relations are key to negotiating with North Korea and Iran, and will "shape the 21st centur

There were clear indications this week that America views China as a key strategic partner in negotiating with North Korea and Iran, as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Chinese counterpart Dai Bingguo held high-level discussions in Washington.

President Obama established the tone of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue in his opening address, describing the Sino-American relationship as one that would "shape the 21st century". In line with these expectations, the range of topics covered by delegates was broad. The global economy was predictably high on the agenda, with both countries agreeing to maintain fiscal stimulus provisions until recovery was "secured".

There was a wide-ranging discussion on foreign policy, taking in the Middle-East peace process as well as the situations in North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Precise details of China's position on the approach to be taken in restricting Iran's nuclear programme were not outlined to reporters, although Clinton stated that "China shares our concerns about Iran becoming a nuclear weapons state". On North Korea, the two powers agreed that "further action and cooperation was needed" to bring the state back to the discussion table. Delegates also discussed recent concerns raised in the global media as to whether North Korea was secretly shipping arms to Myanmar, with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Guangya stressing the need for "adequate evidence".

The world's two biggest polluters also progressed discussions on climate change, signing a "memorandum of understanding" to increase cooperation on clean energy, and to encourage progress towards an international treaty on carbon emissions. And following the recent upheavals in Xinjiang province, there was a "candid" discussion about human rights.

The talks were also notable for the more familiar and personal tone struck by representatives from both sides. Clinton mentioned that, whilst discussing with Dai the birth of his grandchild, "I said that perhaps at the beginning of every government dialogue, we should all take out pictures of our children and our grandchildren and put them on the tables in front of us to be reminded of what was at stake in our high-level negotiations".

But this change of tone is particularly apt. According to Orville Schell, head of the Center for U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, a New York-based think-tank, the US is "turning to China almost like a feuding couple might turn to a marriage counsellor for mediation" in respect of its relations with nations such as North Korea, Myanmar, Sudan, Iran, Zimbabwe and Venezuela. Whilst this approach may be productive, given China's better standing in respect of many of these countries, Schell urges some caution.

"It's very hard to say [what actions China may take in future] ...because whatever China does, they'll do it behind the veil," he said.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Conservatives have failed on home ownership. Here's how Labour can do better

Far from helping first-time buyers, the government is robbing Peter to pay Paul

Making it easier for people to own their own first home is something to be celebrated. Most families would love to have the financial stability and permanency of home ownership. But the plans announced today to build 200,000 ‘starter homes’ are too little, too late.

The dire housing situation of our Greater London constituency of Mitcham & Morden is an indicator of the crisis across the country. In our area, house prices have increased by a staggering 42 per cent over the last three years alone, while the cost of private rent has increased by 22 per cent. Meanwhile, over 8200 residents are on the housing register, families on low incomes bidding for the small number of affordable housing in the area. In sum, these issues are making our area increasingly unaffordable for buyers, private renters and those in need of social and council housing.

But under these new plans, which sweep away planning rules that require property developers to build affordable homes for rent in order to increase the building homes for first-time buyers, a game of political smoke and mirrors is being conducted. Both renters and first-time buyers are desperately in need of government help, and a policy that pits the two against one another is robbing Peter to pay Paul. We need homes both to rent and to buy.

The fact is, removing the compulsion to provide properties for affordable rent will be disastrous for the many who cannot afford to buy. Presently, over half of the UK’s affordable homes are now built as part of private sector housing developments. Now this is going to be rolled back, and local government funds are increasingly being cut while housing associations are losing incentives to build, we have to ask ourselves, who will build the affordable properties we need to rent?

On top of this, these new houses are anything but ‘affordable’. The starter homes would be sold at a discount of 20 per cent, which is not insignificant. However, the policy is a non-starter for families on typical wages across most of the country, not just in London where the situation is even worse. Analysis by Shelter has demonstrated that families working for average local earnings will be priced out of these ‘affordable’ properties in 58 per cent of local authorities by 2020. On top of this, families earning George Osborne’s new ‘National Living Wage’ will still be priced out of 98 per cent of the country.

So who is this scheme for? Clearly not typical earners. A couple in London will need to earn £76,957 in London and £50,266 in the rest of the country to benefit from this new policy, indicating that ‘starter homes’ are for the benefit of wealthy, young professionals only.

Meanwhile, the home-owning prospects of working families on middle and low incomes will be squeezed further as the ‘Starter Homes’ discounts are funded by eliminating the affordable housing obligations of private property developers, who are presently generating homes for social housing tenants and shared ownership. These more affordable rental properties will now be replaced in essence with properties that most people will never be able to afford. It is great to help high earners own their own first homes, but it is not acceptable to do so at the expense of the prospects of middle and low earners.

We desperately want to see more first-time home owners, so that working people can work towards something solid and as financially stable as possible, rather than being at the mercy of private landlords.

But this policy should be a welcome addition to the existing range of affordable housing, rather than seeking to replace them.

As the New Statesman has already noted, the announcement is bad policy, but great politics for the Conservatives. Cameron sounds as if he is radically redressing housing crisis, while actually only really making the crisis better for high earners and large property developers who will ultimately be making a larger profit.

The Conservatives are also redefining what the priorities of “affordable housing” are, for obviously political reasons, as they are convinced that homeowners are more likely to vote for them - and that renters are not. In total, we believe this is indicative of crude political manoeuvring, meaning ordinary, working people lose out, again and again.

Labour needs to be careful in its criticism of the plans. We must absolutely fight the flawed logic of a policy that strengthens the situation of those lucky enough to already have the upper hand, at the literal expense of everyone else. But we need to do so while demonstrating that we understand and intrinsically share the universal aspiration of home security and permanency.

We need to fight for our own alternative that will broaden housing aspirations, rather than limit them, and demonstrate in Labour councils nationwide how we will fight for them. We can do this by fighting for shared ownership, ‘flexi-rent’ products, and rent-to-buy models that will make home ownership a reality for people on average incomes, alongside those earning most.

For instance, Merton council have worked in partnership with the Y:Cube development, which has just completed thirty-six factory-built, pre-fabricated, affordable apartments. The development was relatively low cost, constructed off-site, and the apartments are rented out at 65 per cent of the area’s market rent, while also being compact and energy efficient, with low maintenance costs for the tenant. Excellent developments like this also offer a real social investment for investors, while providing a solid return too: in short, profitability with a strong social conscience, fulfilling the housing needs of young renters.

First-time ownership is rapidly becoming a luxury that fewer and fewer of us will ever afford. But all hard-working people deserve a shot at it, something that the new Conservative government struggle to understand.