This post was co-written with Joel Mullan and originally appeared on LabourList.
As the largest country by population and purchasing power, China is leading the world into an Asian future. The statistics are well known but the impact is only beginning to be felt.
The UK moves into this future with a head start. We enjoy strong institutions and infrastructure, educated and healthy people. But this head start can manifest as complacency. We are already losing out to Germany in terms of influence in Beijing and trade with the Chinese. Brits generally have a low awareness of Chinese culture, society and politics, and the UK currently exports more to Ireland than it does to China, India and Brazil combined. As Chinese influence in both politics and economics increases, the question of whether the UK is ‘China-Ready’ is becoming ever more important.
The choice is clear. If Britain does not adapt to the changing world, the prospects of our children will be narrower than those of our parents and it will be the poorest in society who will suffer the most. We are not yet out of the most substantial economic crisis for more than two generations. In times such as these, the cost of not moving forwards is all too apparent. It is visible in the unemployment figures, and the queues for the food banks. It can be found in political disaffection and the rise of populist parties offering simplistic solutions.
But as we celebrate Chinese New Year, we stand at a moment of opportunity. By acting now and developing a real long-term national strategy for our engagement with China we can ensure that the UK is China-Ready, and secure a more prosperous future.
All too often on the left, foreign policy revolves around opposition to unjust conflict, promotion of human rights and solidarity with oppressed minorities. These are the bedrock of our internationalism – our shared humanity which tells us there is more that unites us regardless of the accidents of our race, nationality or beliefs. But in an era of intense globalisation that is blurring the boundaries of domestic and foreign policy, this cannot be the totality of an enlightened approach. It must become more proactive, less one-dimensional, and a fundamental element of our efforts to promote fairness both and home and abroad.
Every government department must take steps to adjust to the rise of China and the seismic geopolitical shifts of which it is but the clearest example. It is an imperative for the next government and a challenge to which the Labour party – with our unashamedly internationalist outlook – is uniquely suited to fulfilling.
In a new pamphlet published today, the Young Fabians make a number of suggestions for affecting an Asian step-change across UK government. There are four key themes that recur throughout ‘China-Ready’.
The first is that we must engage more with China. The left has had a challenging relationship with China but insularity will not change any of the facts on the ground. Our relationship must move beyond the transactional one that has been pursued by the Cameron government with Prime Minister as Salesman-in-Chief.
Second, there is a need to take a step back and identify potential opportunities. Win-wins need to be sought and exploited. As IPPR have argued government should develop an industrial strategy for every sector with an existing or potential comparative advantage.
Third, we must recognise that the UK government is behind other countries in considering how to engage with China. Look at Australia, who published a cross-governmental White Paper on their relationship with Asian countries in 2012, or even Scotland, who are now onto their Second ‘China Plan’. Liam Byrne’s suggestion for a prominent China Taskforce to work across government departments would be a step forward.
Fourth, we need to leverage our position in Europe. When it comes to securing fair and reciprocal access to Chinese markets for British firms, or highlighting concerns around cyber-security and human rights, our words are amplified when they are joined in chorus with our European partners. A British exit from Europe would have far-reaching consequences for our ability to influence far beyond the confines of this continent.
Just after leaving office, Tony Blair outlined what he called the “modern choice” for Britain: “Do we open up… or do we hunker down… and wait till the danger has passed? Is globalisation a threat or an opportunity? … In Britain, the modern Labour Party has undoubtedly gone for the open position.” It is this fundamental divide – and staying on the correct side of it – which motivates this publication. In engaging with China we must hold openness as one of our core values and objectives.
Or as Liam Byrne puts it in the foreword to ‘China-Ready’: “Let’s be confident enough to throw in our lot with the changing world, to become full-blooded globalisers.” If we fail to, the UK will only decline in the Asian future.
“All I ask is the chance to prove that money can’t make me happy.” Spike Milligan
“The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.” Thomas Jefferson
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