Getting the UK ‘China-ready’

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 United Kingdom moves into this future with a headstart. We enjoy strong institutions and infrastructure, educated and healthy people. But this headstart can manifest as complacency. We are already losing out to Germany in terms of influence in Beijing and trade with the Chinese. Brits tend to have a low awareness of Chinese culture, society and politics. The UK currently exports more to Ireland than it does to China, India and Brazil combined. The evidence would suggest that the UK is not yet ‘China-ready’.

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. 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 foreign policy. 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.

As we celebrate Chinese new year, a new pamphlet from the Young Fabians makes 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. Insularity will not change any of the facts on the ground. Our relationship must move beyond the transactional one that has been pursued by David Cameron government’s with prime minister as salesman-in-chief.

Second, there is a need to identify potential opportunities. Win-wins should be found and exploited. As IPPR has argued government should develop an industrial strategy for every sector with an existing or potential comparative advantage.

Third, we must recognise that the UK is behind other countries in considering how to engage with China. Look at Australia, which published a cross-gov­ernmental white paper on its relationship with Asian countries in 2012, or even Scotland, which are now onto its second ‘China Plan’. A prominent China Taskforce working across government departments would be hugely beneficial.

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 cybersecurity and human rights, our words are amplified when they are joined in chorus with our European partners.

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.

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China-Ready: Equipping Britain for an Asian Future is published today by the Young Fabians and is edited by Joel Mullan and Adam Tyndall. They tweet at @JoelMullan and @AdamTyndall

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