Charles Parton

    How to counter China

    Britain needs a proper strategy

    How to counter China
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    When another country does something to upset the Chinese Communist party, it gets accused of ‘a Cold War mentality’. This is psychological projection, in Freudian terms, a defence mechanism which projects onto others the negative aspects of one’s own self.

    But the CCP is right in a way: we should have more of a ‘Cold War mentality’ or at least a ‘values and systems war’ mentality. China is not the Soviet Union. We never co-operated with the USSR on trade and investment or science and technology. We do with China.

    Indeed the CCP sees itself as fighting a ‘values and systems war’. Xi Jinping, in his first speech to the Politburo in 2012, talked of the need for ‘Chinese socialism to gain the dominant position over western capitalism’. Externally the CCP covers up its mentality by constant propaganda slogans, such as talk of its ‘win-win’ Belt and Road Initiative and a ‘community of shared future for mankind’. Beijing does want a shared future for mankind, a Leninist-capitalist one.

    Has the UK woken up to this? Certainly, there are some in the press and parliament that have. Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the South China Sea — not to mention the Covid cover-up — have ensured that. In 2020 research by the British Foreign Policy Group’s research found that 83% of Britons did not trust China to act responsibly in the world, five points behind North Korea.

    But what about the UK government? Whitehall is currently in the process of fleshing out our approach to China, due to be published in the spring. What is badly needed is a clear set of policies, a strategy no less. This would prevent the sort of flip-flops seen in the decision on Huawei’s participation in building the UK’s 5G infrastructure, first backed by Theresa May, then partially backed by Boris Johnson before he completely ruled out its involvement in the network.

    There is little point in speculating, as some have, whether the Prime Minister is sinophile or Sinophobe. He surely prioritises the UK’s values, security and prosperity. It is no easy job balancing that holy trinity, ensuring the first two while maximising trade and investment.

    The Integrated Review did not dispel the ambiguity over dealing with China. It laid out a tilt towards the Indo-Pacific, a room in which the elephant is China. The Aukus agreement may be a harbinger of a more realistic assessment of our relationship with the eastern superpower.

    To be fair to the government it has made progress. Increasingly it consults China experts outside Whitehall (there is a dearth of China experience in its senior ranks). The National Strategy Implementation Group (NSIG), a cross-Whitehall body of senior officials charged with implementing the approach to China, is more active in co-ordinating policy; the National Security and Investment Act (NSIA), which prevents bigger hi-tech companies from being acquired by potentially hostile powers, is now law; the new Research Collaboration Advice Team (RCAT) gives guidance to researchers ‘on sensitive and emerging issues’ to prevent cutting edge research being used against UK interests; within the security service the Joint State Threats Assessment Team (JSTAT) looks at interference in our democracy and economic security.

    Unfortunately, these are insufficient. The NSIA is too cumbersome and misses many small but worrying investments. The RCAT is too gentlemanly, offering advice, but with no sanctions when researchers pursue their enthusiasms at the expense of national security. And the JSTAT is too secretive – four years old and no one has heard of it, even though publicity and transparency should be its main deterrents.

    Their roles overlap, yet they come under different departments. Should they not be run by a beefed-up NSIG? For example, the CCP is still largely unfettered in buying (an NSIA worry) or hiring (an RCAT concern) British brains to enhance its surveillance state and military technology. What is needed is a Sage-style committee that recommends to the NSIG which fields are open to collaboration with China and which are closed. That should be backed up with a government organisation with teeth, able to enforce its decisions with speed, but also with sanctions when companies or universities harm UK interests.

    Also on the task list should be the establishment of an Australian-style National Counter Foreign Interference Coordinator’s Office, in effect an open version of JSTAT, charged with assessing the threat, vulnerabilities and consequences of foreign interference and blunting their effects. Another urgent task is to strengthen the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, in order to prevent politicians and top civil servants from hiring out their past expertise and contacts to the likes of Huawei, a company — in CCP parlance — as ‘close as lips and teeth’ to the party.

    Then we need greater unity with European allies, a clear Taiwan policy that involves warning the CCP that seizure of the island against the wishes of its people will lead to sanctions and a break in diplomatic relations. In sum, there is a need for a clear recognition of how the CCP operates and a clear strategy for dealing with it. And preferably before spring is sprung.