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Volume 657: debated on Thursday 4 April 2019

Select Committee statement

We move on to the 16th report of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, on the topic of China and the rules-based international system. Tom Tugendhat, the Chair of the Committee, will speak for up to 10 minutes, during which time no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of his statement, I will call Members to put questions on the subject of the statement and call Tom Tugendhat to respond to them in turn. Members can expect to be called only once, and questions should be brief.

It is a particular pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Gapes. Your contribution to the Foreign Affairs Committee over the past 20 years has been truly exemplary, and indeed, your contribution to this report is one of the reasons why it was such a success. I am very glad that you are chairing this hearing.

Today, the Foreign Affairs Committee published its report on China and the rules-based international system. We worked on this inquiry for more than a year, including a trip to China to understand how the UK was seen from a Chinese perspective. As ever, we are very grateful to many people who submitted evidence to us, and especially to those who gave oral evidence, including the former Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd.

China is seeking a role in the world commensurate with its growing economic power, and the UK should welcome its desire to take part in global governance. We do not believe that China wants to jeopardise the benefits that it has reaped from a stable, rules-based international system. However, it has consolidated power in the hands of the Communist party under President Xi, and the UK’s China strategy needs to reflect that. On many issues, China is a viable partner for the United Kingdom. The threat that environmental degradation, for example, poses to the Communist party’s legitimacy has led China to join international efforts on climate change and sustainability.

However, on other issues that China perceives as challenging its domestic control, such as global initiatives on human rights and free societies, it has opposed international approaches. It is appropriate that this statement follows one from the Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, given how many of the concerns we considered overlap with that Committee’s work.

Indeed, in the area of human rights, the evidence suggests that China does not intend to reform the rules-based international system. Rather, it intends to subvert it by promoting an alternative version of human rights that stresses economic development at the cost of the universality of individual civil and political freedoms. In our report, we urge the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to increase its efforts to hold China to account for its human rights violations by using UN mechanisms, public statements and private diplomacy.

During the inquiry, we also heard troubling allegations of Chinese attempts to interfere in the UK’s domestic affairs. The openness of the UK’s political system and society is a fundamental source of our strength. However, in the face of an autocratic state seeking to increase its influence abroad, that openness can also be a source of vulnerability. The UK needs to decide how to draw the line between legitimate attempts to exercise influence and illegitimate attempts at interference. It is a topic that we on the Foreign Affairs Committee will be looking at further in our new inquiry into autocracies and UK foreign policy.

The Committee also noted its concern about the Chinese Government’s approach to Hong Kong. The Sino-British joint declaration on Hong Kong is a legally binding international treaty registered at the UN. It is of great importance to UK national interests and the health of the rules-based international system. China’s adherence to the letter and spirit of the declaration is a key test of the sincerity of its commitment to global governance. We were therefore deeply concerned by evidence that Hong Kong’s autonomy is at risk, especially in the area of the rule of law. We are concerned that the Chinese Government are moving away from an approach of “one country, two systems” towards “one country, one system”. We therefore urge the UK Government to continue to raise concerns about Hong Kong publicly and privately with the Hong Kong authorities.

We support the Government’s efforts to increase the UK’s presence in the Indo-Pacific—including its military presence—in line with its capacity and other defence commitments. The region is vital for global trade and home to a number of UK partners and allies. Communication about those efforts is crucial. Poorly communicated military deployments in the Indo-Pacific could be perceived or depicted by China as a crude attempt to contain the expansion of its influence.

The UK should focus instead on core principles, including freedom of navigation, the rights of states—including China’s neighbours—to form and maintain alliances of their choosing, and the importance of a balanced and consensual regional security order. We urge the Government to ensure that initiatives to expand the UK’s military presence in the Indo-Pacific are explained with reference to those principles.

China’s belt and road initiative—perhaps the most famous and well-known aspect of its foreign policy—is likely to have geopolitical effects that are as important as, and potentially more important than its economic impact. That Chinese-led investment in foreign countries, and in developing countries in particular, need not conflict with British interests. Asia’s infrastructure gap is real, and exporting the fruits of China’s spectacular growth could be a way to close that gap while addressing China’s own economic needs. The UK should help China with that. It can gain economic benefits from doing so, including by focusing on areas in which the UK has particular value to offer, such as legal and financial services.

However, in its current form, the belt and road initiative raises concerns in relation to UK interests. There is a risk that Chinese investment could encourage countries to strike deals that undermine international standards or that leave countries with unsustainable debt that undermines their political stability. The Government should take a strictly case-by-case approach to assessing belt and road projects and refrain from expressing a view on the initiative as a whole.

For the UK to come up with a comprehensive strategy to guide its relationship with China, it will need to answer some key questions. What are the drivers of Chinese foreign policy? What are the major goals of UK policy towards China? What is the bottom line of UK interests, values and national security considerations on which we are not prepared to compromise?

The UK’s approach to China reflects an unwillingness to face the reality of China’s strategic direction. Building a deeper partnership with China is still desirable, but we must recognise that there are hard limits to what co-operation can achieve and that the values and interests of the Chinese Communist party, and therefore the Chinese state, are often very different from those of the United Kingdom. In the report, we call for the Government to produce a single public document that defines its China strategy, crafted through a cross-Government process directed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. That chimes with findings emerging from all the substantial inquiries we have undertaken.

The FCO has a diminished grip on our Government’s international strategy. It needs to reassert itself as the focal point for that strategy and regain some of its self-confidence and authority. Without a comprehensive approach, the UK risks prioritising economic considerations over its other interests, its values and national security. A constructive, positive UK relationship with China is possible and desirable, but it will require strategy, rigour and unity in place of hope and muddling through.

I, too, think it is a delight that you are in the Chair, Mr Gapes, although in a way it would be better if you were sitting down here, because I think your contribution would be useful. I commend the Committee on which I sit on our wonderful report. I think the Chairman has outlined the issues very well. How concerned is he that the British Government are a bit mealy mouthed sometimes when it comes to issues such as the Uighurs? More than 1 million people are in probably the largest concentration camp in the world, effectively being reschooled or re-educated—whatever we want to call it. Also, how worried is he by Italy’s recent deal with China? With that, we are beginning to see all the possible dangers of the belt and road initiative that he pointed to coming into the European Union.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his points. His contribution to the report was extremely important, as he knows. He raises two points that we looked at in various different ways. The Italian question came up at the end of the report process. On the question of the Uighurs, one of the things that came out strongly is that it is not simply a Chinese domestic issue. The repression of Muslim communities in western China will almost certainly have repercussions on other areas, including the UK and our allies in the region, as radicalism is likely to increase and further violence may follow from that.

As the hon. Gentleman will have heard, this is one of those moments when one must remember that one is looking at various forms of China. We are seeing the Chinese security state experimenting with its powers, particularly in Xinjiang. In some ways, one could say that modern China is an experiment. The challenge to which we do not know the answer is whether old men with tech can beat young people with ideas. So far, we do not know.

Italy’s deal with China is part of a long pattern that we have seen in Chinese foreign policy, which is to divide alliances and seek to break up groups. In this case, that is to split Italy from the rest of the European Union. It is interesting that when President Macron met President Xi only a few days after that deal was signed, he insisted on having Chancellor Merkel and President Tusk in the room at the same time to make the point that the European Union was still a united entity when dealing with Chinese trade. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the Italian decision to go on its own poses some important questions, not only for the European Union but for the United Kingdom.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for explaining his report in such detail. The report is excellent and thorough, and I commend all members of the Committee as well as its excellent Chair. Will he tell me how important he thinks soft power is in building our future relationships with China and ensuring that we foster them in the most positive ways, such as through cultural exchange, art and literature, which are important? I had an excellent visit to the Brunei gallery to see the exhibition of John Thomson, who was a devoted Scottish photographer. It was curated by Betty Yao. In the 1800s, he took the earliest pictures of China. I know that the ambassador has been very positive on the connections. Will he comment on taking forward soft power and culture, and that connection?

The hon. Lady makes some important points on soft power. We did not look specifically at the area of arts that she talks about, but we did speak to people about universities. The university sector is an extremely important element of the UK’s soft power, particularly in Scotland, which has universities with international reputations such as St Andrews, which is merely an example of the much larger university sector.

When we look at the university sector in terms of soft power, it is important that we look at both its influence and the challenge that dealing with autocratic states can pose. The hon. Lady is right that soft power is very important; it allows us to spread cultural values and to influence future generations of Chinese society. However, it also gives the Chinese state an opportunity to influence some aspects of the UK.

We took evidence from some universities and professors who commented on the nature of the intervention in UK civic life that the Chinese state has made, on occasion, in seeking to close down debate or discussion in UK universities by using Chinese students as an economic lever over our university sector. That is clearly important, and something we need to be cautious about. It is one of the reasons why many of us on the Committee are so supportive of the work of the BBC World Service in setting out a neutral and open information network for the world.

I, too, thank the Chair of the Committee and all its members for this comprehensive report. As he and the Minister will know, I have a deep interest in human rights. Pages 28 and 29 of the report are clear about the persecution of ethnic minorities or religious groups. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) mentioned the Uighur Muslims. House Christians, Buddhists and the Falun Gong also face persecution. The Chair of the Committee will be aware of the debate that we had in Westminster Hall a short time ago about live organ transplants or extraction on a commercial basis, with some 90,000 transplants per year in China.

I know that the Minister is very sympathetic to the issue—this is not a criticism, by any means—but I wonder whether the Committee gave any thought to how to address the human rights exploitation, which is clearly at a clinical, surgical level. Although the Chinese constitution says that there is freedom of expression, there clearly is not. How can we persuade the Chinese Government, through the Minister and our Government, of the changes that we feel they should put in place?

The hon. Gentleman’s record on defending human rights, and particularly the freedom of religion and belief, is second to none in this House, and I am grateful to him for those points. In the inquiry, we restricted ourselves to focusing on the UK, our relationship to China and how we should shape our position. We therefore did not look at the house Churches, the Christian persecutions or the Buddhist persecutions that he speaks of.

We looked at the Uighur element because of the repercussions on the UK of increased radicalisation in Muslim communities. We also recognised the closing down of freedom of expression in Hong Kong, and therefore the intervention in the rule of law, because we have a specific commitment, lodged with the United Nations in the Sino-British treaty, that we are obliged to maintain.

Furthermore, we also inherit some aspects of that rule of law, because we continue to send judges to the court of final appeal in Hong Kong. The undermining of the rule of law in Hong Kong could therefore affect the perception of UK justice here at home. We are focused on how we can influence the UK Government to change their actions in relation to protecting the UK’s interests. That is why we focused, as I said, on the Uighur and the Hong Kong elements in relation to human rights.

I congratulate the Chair of the Committee, who my hon. Friend the Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins) holds in high regard. If the UK Government decide to uphold the UN ruling on the Chagos islands, in respecting the international rules-based system, they risk letting China in and upsetting the delicate balance of power in south Asia and the Indian ocean. If the UK Government do not respect the decision, they undermine the rules-based system, allowing China further to erode and undermine the balance of power in the South China sea with its base construction. Which is it to be?

I am impressed with the ingenuity of the hon. Gentleman in relating the Chagossians to a Foreign Affairs Committee report on China. There is a difference, which I will leave the Minister to explain, with the British Government’s position towards the Chagos islands and the British Indian Ocean Territory. I will not be drawn on that—forgive me.

I will say that the UN law of the sea, which guarantees freedom of navigation in all parts of the world, is an extremely important underpinning of world trade. It is extremely concerning that nations are restricted in transiting through international waters, because that can have severe repercussions on not just our own community and trade but those of very important allies such as India and Japan, which share our interest in free trade. We therefore need to be very supportive of democratic states in the area, whose economic lives will—I hope—be increasingly linked to our own.

I congratulate my hon. Friend, as I will call him, on this excellent report, which has been put together in such detail. I will ask a couple of questions, particularly on what he thinks the Government will do regarding the Indo-Pacific routes, and how we can push the Government to make some clear lines in relation to them.

My hon. Friend raised the belt and road project, which will have a huge effect on Europe and on what we do. China has to meet international standards, in relation to products, the way they are transported, the areas that they go through, and the people who are affected. It has to trade on the same level footing as we do. He also rightly raised issues surrounding democracy in Hong Kong. I press the Government to support that and to continue to move forward; we have a responsibility to do so.

Finally, soft power was mentioned—where we have a huge advantage. My hon. Friend rightly mentioned universities, which are very important, as is the World Service, but I urge him to look at the British Council, which does a phenomenal amount of work in this area. The British Council’s presence in China, looking at the issues, will lead to more young people and students coming to our universities. That is a great tool of soft power that we do not use as much as we should.

I thank my hon. Friend for the report, and urge him to look at those questions. The Minister is a very good fellow, and I am sure he will be supportive.

I will pick up on the points that have not been covered, particularly those relating to the British Council. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood) is right that we did not explore its work, but it is an extremely important element of Britain’s soft power.

The work of the Department for International Development in China is also interesting, because it has ceased, in many ways, to be a donor agency instead of a partner agency. That is an area in which our partnership with China is reaping rewards, not just for China but for the United Kingdom and many other countries in the region. Our assistance in professionalising Chinese aid and sharing best practice is helping in many areas. That is an expression of soft power that we often overlook. We often look at DFID’s soft power as a donor agency, but being a partner agency is an important element too.

Let us not beat about the bush: the rise of China is the big geopolitical issue of our age. It is fantastic that the Committee has put so much work into its report. I know that it makes a lot of recommendations; there may be some that we do not entirely agree with, but having appeared before the Committee, I hope that we can work closely together on its important work.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) quite rightly pointed out the importance of the juxtaposition between the two reports debated in this Chamber today. I think it is wishful thinking to assume that there will be a global protocol for the internet. It may be slightly disingenuous for Facebook and others to suggest that they can work towards one, because there is no doubt that there are fundamental differences in values. Equally, this is a world in which we need to work both in bilateral relationships and internationally.

May I touch on the rather provocative question asked by the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes)? Of course our view is that the judgment of the International Court of Justice was advisory, rather than being a judgment that we are necessarily subject to, but there is a risk that in trying to address these issues we could be accused of being mealy mouthed. Fundamentally, I am not quite sure where we will come out. There is a great risk that if the injustice to the Chagos people continues for any great length of time, we will be accused of riding roughshod in the way that has been suggested. I am being very candid with the hon. Gentleman, but I think that it is right to do so.

Well, there was an issue relating to China there—the fundamental issue of standing up for the rules-based international order. We will need to work closely on it with partners and recognise that China will not respect that order, although it respects order in its own right, and that it will want us to adapt and evolve those rules for a 21st century in which it will be an even bigger player.

I do not think I have any more questions, but more questions will arise from a full analysis of the Committee’s excellent report, to which we look forward to providing a full written response in due course.

The Minister’s response, both on the Chagos islands and on other areas, shows why he is highly respected in his brief and why he is such an important part of our diplomatic effort around the world. I am extremely grateful for his contribution. I am particularly grateful that he brought up the comparison between democracy and autocracy with respect to the question of privacy and openness. He is right, because democracies fundamentally require privacy to survive and autocracies fundamentally compel openness. That is a challenge that we are seeing around the world.

It remains for me to thank you, Mr Gapes, because your contribution was invaluable throughout; the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin), who was also a fantastic member of the Committee; and our Committee staff, who have been instrumental. Sadly, our specialist Matthew Harries was with us all too briefly and has now taken up a different opportunity elsewhere, but he was absolutely first rate; he could not have been better or more diligent in his preparation and his efforts. Our Clerk Hannah Bryce has been exemplary in keeping our rather disorderly Committee together on our trips—she is extremely impressive. I thank them both, along with our other Clerk, who I am glad to see in a new place, from my perspective—sitting next to you, Mr Gapes.