This is not a book about China. As Liam Byrne admits in his conclusion, ‘it’s actually a book about Britain written by a politician who has spent most of his career in business.’ The central argument is that ‘in Britain we should … decide to act ahead of the game, strengthening our links with China now, not later.’ What Byrne offers is a timely and important contribution to the debate about Britain’s role in the ‘Pacific century’.
The backdrop is the phenomenal rise of China. The familiar barrage of mind-blowing statistics is deployed alongside the less familiar, but equally important, historical narrative. Two sides of this defining story are woven together to create an excellent introduction to modern China and to press home the scale of the challenge facing western governments.
The path that Byrne outlines is more – and better – trade. A ‘back-of-the-envelope’ calculation suggests that doubling the annual growth in exports to China would boost GDP by £5bn and tripling it would add £7bn to GDP – or 0.5 per cent. To get there Britain needs an active state that prioritises innovation, invests in skills and education, has thriving regions and competitive sectors, and ‘sells’ UK plc more effectively around the world. We should shift away from a reliance on ‘the jewel in the crown’ (the City of London) and move towards a promotion of the 10 or so sectors that make up ‘the crown jewels’.
A key theme is the relationship between the European Union and China. Byrne praises much of what has been achieved: from the benefits of the free movement of capital to the training of judges in Chinese provinces. He writes of the need for an EU-China investment agreement and bemoans the lack of trade coordination at a European level. This makes it all the more surprising that only two pages are explicitly focused on Britain’s membership of the EU.
The truth is that we are facing a generational battle for the very essence of British foreign policy. It is utter folly to think that building a ‘special relationship’ with China would be easier if we left the EU. In a globalised world, Chinese leaders want to know (to steal a line attributed to Henry Kissinger) ‘Who do I call to get Europe?’ The closer we are to the centre of the world’s largest trading bloc, and the more we are seen to be leading it, the greater the dividends. The evidence? Germany has three times more trade with China than the UK. Nigel Farage never misses an opportunity to rally the troops and neither should we.
Despite this, Turning to Face the East is a reassuring read. A serious thinker at the heart of the political establishment is grappling with one of the big issues of our time – and he is on our side. Against a backdrop that can, at times, be terrifying in its scale and opacity, Byrne offers a compelling, optimistic vision for Britain in the Pacific century.
Adam Tyndall is co-founder of the China-Britain Youth Association
Turning to Face the East
Guardian Faber | 230pp | £12.99
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