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11 January 2022

The UK must abandon “democratic defeatism” if it’s to stand up to China

Beijing’s selective application of international rules is changing the world for the worse.

By Tom Tugendhat

The golden era between Britain and China is over. Beijing’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy and trade sanctions have introduced a level of aggression to its foreign relationships while at home, human rights and state repression make it clear that this isn’t just about us. The Chinese government has changed, and we are not alone in feeling it.

Two individuals have revealed much about China under Chairman Xi Jinping. Peng Shuai, a tennis player, and the formerly elusive Jack Ma, a tech billionaire, symbolise a brutal side of Xi’s Chinese Communist Party even to those with major following and global reach. Civil society has been silenced, opposition crushed, and state control reasserted over entrepreneurs.

Xi’s political and economic agenda is spreading abroad. Beijing’s diplomats now threaten countries across Europe and sanction nations such as Australia that dare to speak out. Beijing is increasingly mirroring its authoritarian control at home with similar attempts beyond its borders. Lithuania has faced a harsh backlash for its peaceful links to Taiwan while fellow European Union states, including Sweden and the Czech Republic, are under pressure for nothing more than speaking up for human rights.

Others are feeling the entwining grip of loans that enrich elites and squeeze citizens. A steady stream of Chinese investment, technology and vaccines is etching new trade routes but also giving Beijing more power to influence outcomes.

This is about more than profit; it’s about changing the way we organise our world.

The grainy satellite images of North Korean ships smuggling coal to Chinese vessels in the Yellow Sea are not just a show of sanctions-busting, but a statement that rules don’t matter to the strong. Ignoring the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, creating a marine desert in the waters around China, and island-building, are evidence of the environmental cost of Beijing’s expansionist claims over the South China Sea. The military islands are a repudiation of international maritime law.

These are not Western laws. When they were drafted, China – a permanent member of the UN Security Council – was at the table. Beijing is giving itself more freedom to act alone, unconstrained now that it thinks others weaker.

[See also: How China is reclaiming history]

But Beijing doesn’t reject all rules, not when it thinks they could be turned to home advantage. At the UN’s International Telecommunication Union, Chinese diplomats are preaching new standards for the internet. To reinforce the Great Firewall that keeps ideas out of China, their proposal for a “new IP” would centralise data, exporting China’s model of digital authoritarianism. The whole world would pay the price.

This is the return of power politics, not the rule of law, and it weakens us all. By turning away from predictable systems based on pre-agreed principles, we are going back to an earlier time when the ever-changing whims of an emperor were more important than the law. That will make the future less predictable and make it harder to invest for the long term, damaging the global economy.

For Britain the change could be more acute – the modern economic system is built on principles set out over past centuries by British lawyers, accountants, financiers and traders. Our service economy prospers on the back of it. Few countries are as entwined into the current order, but many others rely on the open markets and system to prosper. We need to defend the rules, for ourselves and others.

That’s where we need to deepen our protection at home and our cooperation abroad. There is no need for democratic defeatism. Laws to tackle foreign influence in our institutions and illicit pressure on our society are coming, and while only the start, they show an important direction of change.

Our partners know this too. European nations have copied the US and Australia in introducing rules about foreign economic influence. Together, we can shape the coming decades.

The 11 nations that met at the G7 last year in Cornwall account for some 70 per cent of the global economy, China for less than a fifth. And this isn’t just about today.

[See also: As China stumbles, the West must ask: what if its rise is not inevitable?]

By punishing entrepreneurs and making it harder to study, Beijing is punishing the knowledge economy. Ideas don’t flourish in a dark desert; they need freedom and funding. The Hongkongers applying for British National Overseas visas and the migrants fleeing persecution who head west, not east, prove these values are popular around the world.

Our freedoms rely on more than the rules. If we’re to protect our liberties, we need to protect our supplies. That means deepening our partnerships with dependable friends. This is where the real strategic shift must happen. We need to fortify old alliances and build new ones.

That’s where the Aukus security pact, between Australia, the UK and the US, sets a positive direction. Now it needs to grow, bringing in Japan and Germany, France and Canada to secure the technologies of the future and to share the costs of innovation.

China’s influence is real, but the free world is still powering on. If we choose to back our allies, and partner with others who share our values, the longest period of peaceful prosperity in many generations will continue. That’s where the UK should be playing its part. Building alliances and protecting ourselves will ensure our prosperity for decades to come.

[See also: How Peng Shuai exposed the limits of Chinese power]

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