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Why we need a more balanced approach to China

Severing ties with Chinese research institutions would be a mistake for the UK’s higher education sector.

By Michael Spence

The relationship between the West and China is of seismic importance. China’s scale, economic importance and growing political, scientific and cultural reach mean that our bonds with the people of that remarkable country are hugely consequential. As someone who has spent my career actively involved in engaging with China as a university leader, and as a student of the Chinese language and culture, I am deeply concerned by the way in which the debate about our engagement with China is reduced to the simplistic metaphor of hawk vs dove.

What is needed is a thoughtful consideration in the West of how to manage our relationship with China. Such consideration must be balanced, and of late too much of the political and media debate around China has focused only on the negative. It is welcome that James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, took this tone in his remarks on 25 April, calling for a relationship with China that is both constructive and robust. This continues a more helpful direction of travel reflected in the Integrated Review Refresh, categorising China as a challenge but not a threat. It is right that we move away from a binary concept of hawks vs doves, and I hope towards a more constructive approach.

There are, of course, very real differences in political values, and in perspectives on some important geopolitical issues, between us and the government of China. Significant differences in areas such as human rights and international law are real, and cannot be ignored. Many countries are concerned to understand China’s apparently shifting sense of its position in the world, and an increased level of control over civil society in recent years. Issues such as this must be honestly identified and handled with all integrity, and diplomatic and strategic skill. Real partners challenge one another, especially on issues that go to fundamental values.

These differences do not, however, justify simply cutting all ties with China as this would damage the many beneficial aspects of this relationship that have been carefully nurtured over decades. Ironically, doing so would undermine our very capacity to challenge. It would impinge upon the West’s ability to understand and thereby influence China, integral to preserving and shaping this vital geopolitical relationship. The Prime Minister’s political secretary, James Forsyth, has often said that the West’s level of expertise on Russia 50 years ago was far greater than its knowledge of China in the present day. It is a point well made. It implies the need to create a deeper understanding of, and expertise on, China in order wisely to manage geopolitical and other relations with Chinese people and institutions.

[See also: Graham Allison: “American politics is driving towards a provocation that China could not avoid”]

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As president and provost of University College London (UCL), I know our higher education sector is an illustrative example. Universities and research institutions do much good for the UK, but the quality and impact of what we do would be significantly diminished were it not for the ties we are able to make across the globe. Collaborative research with China is of substantial and growing importance. As a rising research and economic power, China, like the UK, has excellent research institutions. Both countries’ universities can achieve more if they learn from each other, and we get back as much as we give in these relationships.

Of course, for the small number of instances where there are national security risks there should be, and are, tight controls. The UK must remain vigilant in all foreign collaboration in these very specific areas. However, most collaborations are about addressing shared challenges, not gleaning competitive strategic advantage. A great many save lives. Some of UCL’s most impactful collaborations with China have been in health, for example our work with Peking University on the development of treatments to prevent babies suffering from spina bifida. This gives life to the Foreign Secretary’s statement that “no significant global problem – from climate change to pandemic prevention, from economic stability to nuclear proliferation – can be solved without China”. Universities are at the forefront of tackling such challenges, and our engagement with China proves his point. Far from sharing secrets, the results of this research are almost always discoveries that we promote widely, to extend their benefits. This is what UCL and many other institutions do via open access policies, where research findings are made freely available online.

Chinese students who study at UK universities make a huge contribution to our country, socially and culturally. They bring fresh ideas, a diverse cultural and social perspective, and extensive global networks, which benefit UK students. When they return home to China, the ties and cultural understanding they take back with them provide a considerable soft-power benefit to the UK. “People-to-people” links between our countries continue to help us develop intercultural understanding. We should remember this when considering nuanced ways of engaging with and influencing China. We must also remember the importance of these connections to help tackle the rise in anti-Asian racism that we have seen in the West, which has been linked to increasingly heated rhetoric on relations with China.

The economic benefit to the UK is also significant. International students are estimated by Universities UK to contribute over £25bn a year to the UK economy. Chinese students account for the largest group of international students in the UK. Contrary to some claims, their presence in the UK helps to fund places for domestic students, rather than restrict them. Countries around the world recognise this, and at a time when our discourse can appear unwelcoming to Chinese students, the UK faces stiff competition from other nations to attract them.

In these and other areas, the higher education sector shows that it would be a great shame for the UK if we were to lose the benefits of our ties with China by allowing ourselves to react impulsively to the geopolitical moment. I have set out here a little of what a constructive and nuanced strategy looks like for higher education: one that includes strong governance for our international collaborations and works closely with UK government bodies and within regulations on areas where genuine national security concerns exist. In parallel we must continue to work with Chinese partners on pressing global challenges where co-operation is essential, in ways that benefit us all, and which increase our shared intercultural understanding with the Chinese people. For the government, a similar approach would recognise that in some areas there is a justifiable need to be firm with China where its actions conflict with our reasonable interests and values, but that approach should also ensure there is co-operation with China where it is mutually beneficial and necessary.

In all, these matters should not be reduced to a question of hawks vs doves. What is needed is a balanced approach. We should strive towards constructive engagement with China that seeks to maintain the benefits but is aware of the risks, with appropriate measures to manage them. If the UK and the West can embody this approach, we will all be the better for it.

[See also: The world according to Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin]

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