Interview with James Rogers | Daniel McIntyre

For this article, I spoke over Zoom with Mr James Rogers, former director of ­the Global Britain programme at the Henry Jackson Society, and author of the reports  Global Britain: A Twenty-First Century Vision and Coronavirus Compensation? Accessing China’s Potential Culpability and Avenues of Legal Response, to ask him about the future relationship between the United Kingdom and China, and whether the ‘Golden Era’ of Sino-British relations, ushered in by David Cameron and his administration in the 2010’s, really is over.

Huawei Decision

The U.K. government decision to discontinue Huawei’s involvement in the development of the U.K’s 5G infrastructure seems to have marked a turning point for U.K. foreign policy thinking about China. On hearing news in May 2020 that a repressive national security law will be imposed on the people of Hong Kong, the U.K. responded quickly to oppose the move, coordinating with allies to protest the law, and significantly, offering a pathway to citizenship for up to 3 million Hong Kongers. This was followed up in July when Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab accused China of “gross, egregious human rights abuses” for its treatment of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang. This shift in geopolitical posture towards China has drawn the irk from the Chinese ambassador, who has criticised the U.K. for “interfering” in Hong Kong matters, and has said that “If you want to treat China as a hostile country, you will pay the price”.

I asked Mr Rogers what pressures led to Prime Minister Johnson announcing such a U-turn on Huawei, after he has previously committed to allowing Huawei into the U.K’s 5G network, and he explained that we need to understand the decision as being a consequence of both long-term and short-term pressures. The long-term pressures were two-fold. Firstly, there were domestic pressures coming from within the Conservative party, who wished to see a more “robust” British stance towards China, and who did not want to see Huawei in British telecommunications 5G network. As well as this, they wanted to draw attention to the “systemic human rights abuses” in China, and their increasingly “revisionist authoritarian stance”. Alongside these internal pressures, there were the external pressures coming from allies such as the  United States, Australia and Japan, who wanted for the U.K. “to become more realistic in its dealings with China”. With American politicians on both sides of the political aisle in the US co-operating and talking with U.K. politicians, both wishing to see “a more robust U.K. stance towards China”, we therefore have a connection between domestic forces at work in British policy towards China, as well as external forces through informal and diplomatic channels.

The short-term factors are over China’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. With evidence suggesting China has not been fully transparent with the international community over when the virus first appeared, as well as their attempt to hide information on how deadly the virus was, has “woken up many governments around the world that China is a revisionist power”, and for the U.K, there was a realisation that you cannot trust the Chinese Communist Party any longer.

Domestic Pressures and Internal Dynamics

Domestic pressures and the internal dynamics of British democracy indicate that the U.K. will continue to take a hard stance towards China. Mr Rogers told me that the China research Group, or CRG, set up in April 2020 by centrist Conservative MPs such as Tom Tugendhat and Neal O’ Brien, now represent mainstream Conservative Party thinking on China today. The CRG’s aim is to “promote fresh thinking about issues raised by the rise of China” and “will look well beyond the immediate Coronavirus crisis or issues relating to Huawei”. However, as well as this, it is clear that mishandling over the outbreak of Covid-19 was the catalyst for the founding of the group. Mr Tugendhat signalled as much when he told the Financial Times that “Beijing’s long pattern of information suppression has contributed to the unfolding crisis” and that with the Chinese Communist Party “using the current emergency to build influence around the world,” it is time now that “along with our allies, we must be part of this global conversation, and to begin it we need to understand what China’s leaders are saying and doing”. Mr Rogers told me that whilst Mr Tugendhat and Mr O’Brien come from the “liberal” or “centrist wing of the party, they are now aligned with Conservatives from other wings of the party, such as Ian Duncan Smith MP and Bob Seely MP, referred to by some as the Huawei group. This group, has long advocated a more robust, and some would say hawkish position towards China, but ultimately now these wings of the party have the same objectives, which is to curtail Chinese influence in the country, and to “coordinate more effectively between our allies to produce a more effective, joined up and integrated China policy” Mr Rogers said.

Since becoming Shadow Foreign Secretary, Lisa Nandy MP has spoken about how one of the things the Labour party got wrong under Jeremy Corbyn as leader was the way in which the party was able to be too easily depicted as not sticking up for Britain against its enemies, most notably in the Skripal poisoning fiasco. This fed into a wider narrative of the Labour party having abandoned the values of its more traditional and patriotic heartlands, such as in the Red Wall seats which fell to the Conservatives at the general election in 2019. Nandy has spoken about the need for the Labour party to adopt an ethical foreign policy, standing up for democracy, human rights and the rule of law, and take a tougher line on authoritarian states. This signals that the Labour party will take a more robust position that it has in recent years towards authoritarian states such as Russia and China. The Labour party will see such a stance as integral in order to win back the communitarian and patriotic seats like in the Red Wall if they are to have any chance of getting into government at the next election.

Mr Rogers told me that such a shift in foreign policy from the Labour party now signifies that there is a “bipartisan consensus” in the U.K, similar to what we see in the United States with the Republicans and Democrats, and therefore, the Conservative party “cannot allow itself to be outmanoeuvred by the Labour party on China”. These internal dynamics in British politics indicate that the U.K. will continue to take a tough line in their relations with China.

Relationship Moving Forward

I asked Mr Rogers whether he thought there were any areas of co-operation or shared interests between the U.K. and China moving forward. For those hoping for a return to the ‘golden era’ of Sino-British relations the answer is not a positive one. Mr. Rogers explains how we need to understand that such a relationship was predicated on a fundamental error in the first place, or what he called “faulty assumptions” – that inviting the Chinese to invest into the U.K.’s economy would “bind them into our system, and they’ll become more like us, and that simply hasn’t happened”. What we are seeing now with the Huawei decision is the U.K adopting a more realistic position in their relationship with China, a position the U.K perhaps was bound to come to eventually, given the international and domestic pressures highlighted already by Mr Rogers. But what is also the case is there has been a realisation now in the U.K as to how faulty those assumptions were. That rather than becoming “more like us”, the feeling is that the opposite has happened, that China has taken “an increasingly hostile and counter systemic approach to their foreign policy”, and therefore, “they’ve not become like us” but rather have “become increasingly less like us”.

British Foreign Policy – The Big Picture

There has been much made of ‘Global Britain’ recently, with little to substantiate it thus far. A recent foreign-affairs select committee report calling the U.K. foreign policy “adrift”, remarked that three years after the committee first asked for more clarity over its meaning, “many of our contributors still told us that they did not know what ‘Global Britain’ stood for.” However, the recent shift in U.K. geopolitical thinking in their relationship to the China offers the contours of what ‘Global Britain’ might look like. What we see beginning to emerge is a value’s based foreign policy which seeks to coordinate with like-minded democracies, with a commitment to human rights and the rule of law, scrapping what Mr Rogers calls “the general foreign policy drift into aimlessness”, of the Cameron years.

The U.K has exited the European Union at a time of great geopolitical uncertainty, with the waning of US power, and a general global tilt towards authoritarianism. Mr Rogers told me that U.K thinking on foreign policy is changing to meet these demands. The days of post-cold war western primacy are long gone, and we live now in a world order that is based on “intense competition across all levels”, and he suspect the U.K will adopt a vision which assumes that this major power competition is here to stay. With the integrated strategic review to be published in January next year, major changes will be taken in how the U.K will “interact with the world around us based on those changes”. This review, said to be the largest review of its kind since the Cold War, will set down the U.K’s long-term foreign policy road map, it’s commitments and its priorities. Whilst the impact of Covid-19 will inevitably mean a squeeze on the public finances, meaning huge immediate increases in spending on defence and security are unlikely, one thing we can be sure of is that we will not see a return to the growth and trade foreign policy of David Cameron, and the golden-era of Sino-British relations.

Photo provided by James Rogers.

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