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Gavin Williamson’s critics miss the point. There is a strong case for resisting Chinese aggression

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The Telegraph, 17 February, 2019

China’s decision to cancel a trade summit with the UK over remarks made in a speech by Gavin Williamson seems like bad news for Britain – it is estimated that the expected deals could have been worth £10bn over five years. Former Chancellor George Osborne accuses the Defence Secretary of “gunboat diplomacy of a quite old fashioned kind”.

The insinuation of these comments is clear: Williamson has hurt the economy by angering China. Yet beneath the outrage, China’s reaction suggests that the UK is finally beginning to develop a coherent response to Chinese aggression.

China’s current diplomatic aim is to persuade foreign governments that access to its market is based on largess and nobility, rather than the rules and regulations of the World Trade Organisation – heaven forbid we expect China to play by the rules. Not only is this type of discriminatory access illegal, it is also unlikely to be effective.

As British officials confided in me last year, Prime Minister David Cameron’s meeting with the Dalai Lama sent diplomatic relations into freefall, but barely affected trade. Deals continued to be signed. Political leaders were simply deprived of photo opportunities. Similar headlines which spoke of Beijing being “enraged” overlook the clever reward-punishment strategy deployed by Chinese leaders, which leverages market access to persuade countries to overlook or accept their expansionism. We are idiots if – knowing this – we bend to their manipulation again and again.

Williamson’s speech was hardly the fire-and-brimstone some critics are suggesting. I would defy readers to find an offensive word in it. He speaks of sending Royal Naval forces to “the Pacific region”. The Sun has creatively re-branded this as “threatening to send a British aircraft carrier to China’s backyard”. Really? As well as China, the South China Sea is shared by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. Parts of it are more than 1,800 km from mainland China (for context, the distance between London and Moscow). China has no legal claims to the South China Sea, beyond usual practice on the high seas.

The Government’s new Global Britain policy emphasises its support for the ‘rules-based international system’. Yet the widespread criticism of Williamson suggests that these are mere buzzwords to our foreign policy elites. The Defence Minister deserves more support. What he said would hardly have surprised the Chinese, and he was simply doing his job of putting forward a strategy for protecting Britain’s interests.

report by the Henry Jackson Society, published a week before Mr Williamson’s speech, attempted to define Britain’s interests in the South China Sea and called for the very transit that has now so angered Beijing. Of course protecting jobs and replacing access to the common market are crucial goals for this government, which must be balanced with hazy geostrategic terms like “freedom of the seas”. However, even if we were to discount our responsibility to our Asian allies and partners, it would be unwise to sell out for deals worth a mere £10bn in cosmetics and poultry. This figure is dwarfedby the £124bn of UK trade that crosses the South China Sea to southeast Asian markets. Selling out British national interests in open and free trade routes isn’t just short-sighted, but terrible fiscal arithmetic.

China has built multiple military bases, bristling with anti-ship missilesthree of them larger than the US military’s Pearl Harbour. If you wish to control something, that is exactly what you do.

Press reports also talk about British officials embarking “on a frantic round of diplomacy to try to get the talks back on track”. This humiliation is likely the only real punishment that China will end up handing out.

In all of this, we overlook China’s reasons for wanting to trade with Britain. Skyrocketing food prices – the product of Trump’s tariffs – are pushing them towards alternative sources of poultry. The poisoning of citizens by dangerous counterfeit cosmetics gives China another strong incentive to reach a cosmetics deal with the UK, where standards are higher.

For all that Treasury figures might talk down our global standing, we should not forget that Beijing needs Britain to internationalise the Chinese currency, the renmimbi. Their new London Embassy, to be built in the heart of the City, reveals a long-term interest in accessing UK finance, fintech, and computing.

Finally, there are important – though much overlooked – ethical arguments. Are we really going to continue to aggressively pursue trade deals with a state that has re-created concentration camps for the modern era? Foreign policy elites in Western nations are still grappling with the moral conundrum this presents. Whatever our ultimate conclusion, I am convinced history will judge Mr Williamson’s remarks rather more favourably in years to come.

Britain needs to steel itself for the fight – if we decide to stand up to China, there will be far worse days than a cancelled summit.


Daily Express, Marco Giannangeli, 11 February, 2019

Report authors James Rogers and Dr John Hemmings, said: “In the South China Sea, the People’s Republic of China is seeking to revise the Law of the Sea by asserting a number of unlawful and excessive claims over various international waters and low-tide elevations.

This is important because the UK, a maritime trading power, relies on maritime communication lines, which in turn depend on the cohesion of the rules-based international system.

“Maintaining a persistent naval presence in the Indo-Pacific – not least the South China Sea – comes at a cost.”


Daily Express, Harvey Gavin, 9 February, 2019

But despite the risks, the HJS report says the UK should project its power into the South China Sea and uphold the law of the sea by carrying out its own freedom of navigation exercises in conjunction with allies.

The authors conclude: “The South China Sea may seem like a distant geopolitical theatre to the UK and therefore largely peripheral to core British national interests.

“However, nothing could be further from the truth: aside from its economic significance to British trade, which is considerable and growing, it marks a sort of litmus test for the durability of the rules-based system.”


UK Defence Journal, Henry Jones, 30 January, 2019

The report, published by The Henry Jackson Society and entitled ‘The South China Sea: Why It Matters to Global Britain‘, claims China’s “unlawful and excessive claims” in the area pose a significant “threat to British interests”. The UK must continue to “reject Chinese claims over international waters”.

It recommends establishing a policy of Royal Navy vessels cruising through to the sea to deter China, in addition to sending HMS Queen Elizabeth to the area when fully operational in 2020-21.


China now appears ready to use execution as a weapon of diplomacy

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CapX, 17 January, 2019

The recent decision by a Chinese court to sentence Canadian Robert Schellenberg to death has led many international observers to claim that the decision is a political one, part of Beijing’s ongoing diplomatic pressure campaign against Canada over its detention of Meng Hanzhou, a senior Huawei executive and daughter of the company’s founder.  Schellenberg’s sentencing comes after two other Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, were arrested in December.

If this were true, it would add to the horrific realisation that the People’s Republic of China is fundamentally changing for the worse. It would – as Donald Clarke, a professor of Law at George Washington Law School has stated – indicate that “China views the holding of human hostages as an acceptable way to conduct diplomacy”. Now it appears that it is willing to sentence one to death.

According to his analysis, a number of features stand out that support the idea that the retrial of Schellenberg is related to Ms Meng. These include the original delay in trial and sentencing – he was arrested in 2016, after all – which might indicate that the evidence was weak, but that courts didn’t want to embarrass the police by throwing it out. Second, it is very rare for a retrial to find heavier punishment was merited (Schellenberg appealed after being handed 15 years in the first trial). Third, the retrial was rescheduled very hastily, with the punishment being handled down in only 20 minutes. Finally, it is odd that of all the individuals indicted in the original case of drug smuggling, Schellenberg had the smallest supposed role. It makes his sentencing particularly repugnant.

Naturally, China has used just enough legal cover to maintain the fiction that Schellenberg’s case is a legitimate example of the fair workings of its legal system, but few are convinced. Even those with strong links to the state have openly said China would take revenge.

Hu Xijin, editor of the virulently nationalist English-language propaganda outlet the Global Times recently published a video in which he warned that Canada should expect “far worse” retaliation from Beijing if it did not free Ms Meng. “Meng Wanzhou was released on bail, but Canada must do more to restore her freedom and put an end to this incident.” He stated. “Otherwise China will definitely take retaliatory measures against Canada.” Ms Meng is currently on bail, living in one of her luxury homes in British Columbia. The contrast with her situation and the three Canadians now in Chinese prisons could not be more stark.

To some extent, travel to China has always come with risks. Ten years ago, if someone working in government or business went to China, they tended to leave their electronic devices at home. There was a realisation that the state has a very aggressive attitude toward information, both proprietorial and strategic. According to cyber expert Peter Varnish, a visiting professor at the University of Coventry, Chinese police and security personnel are able to access the data of unwary travellers within hours of arriving in the country. Now, it seems that personal safety must be added to data security. One hopes that travel warnings will be added to the pages of Western diplomatic websites.

The fact is that the world is going through a major overhaul of its thinking on China. Much of this has been accelerated by the leadership of Xi Jinping, under whom party control and influence have grown, and authoritarian policies and traits have flourished – including the suppression of human rights groups, religious minorities, and free media. The use of diplomatic hostages now adds China to a list of countries such as Iran, Iraq, and, most recently, NATO ally Turkey, which took an American pastor hostage. Unfortunately, China’s turn toward authoritarianism also comes as it arrives on the global stage as a preponderant power, one capable of re-shaping the global order.

We can no longer treat China as a country just like any other. Its leadership has decided that the party must be protected at all costs, and this requires a super-nationalistic approach toward domestic and foreign policy. “Face” is more important than law. It is this desperate need for status and rank that is beginning to drive its relations with the Uighurs, driven to detention camps in the millions, and with the West, driven by the party mantra of historic humiliations. Its concentration camps and its take-over of large parts of the South China Sea are reminiscent of the rise of other authoritarian powers in the 20th century.

It is this same desperate need for face which could see China execute Robert Schellenberg, a 36-year-old Canadian citizen, a man who still protests his innocence, a man whose biggest mistake may have been to travel to a country in the midst of change.


Business Insider, Alex Lockie, 14 December, 2018

“It’s amazing that they’ve backed down because Xi personally put his name on it,” John Hemmings, the director of the Asia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society told Business Insider.

“The fact that Xi is dumping a policy that has his name all over it is huge,” Hemmings said of the policy reversal.

He added that the new willingness to play ball with Trump on trade could amount to a “very slow incremental cave-in on the tariff war.”

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