Fresh from from his agenda-setting speech on British foreign policy, William Hague is midway through a trip to China and Japan designed to prepare the way for the Prime Minister's visit in the autumn and put the new Government on the map of the region's two largest economies. It is hard not to feel that he faces an uphill struggle.
The financial crisis left China and other Asian economies with a sense of superiority. For the US and Britain, there can be no more preaching the advantages of the so-called Anglo-Saxon model; there must be due humility. In his speech two weeks ago, Mr Hague stressed the way economic power is shifting to the emerging powers, including China, producing opportunities that Britain needed to be agile enough to exploit. He also made clear, as did David Cameron in a recent address to British ambassadors, that he wanted promoting business to be an even bigger component of British diplomacy than it already is. Prompting an irritated riposte from his predecessor, Mr Hague also claimed that UK diplomacy had neglected China.
Yet rectifying that will not be easy. Britain's clout is limited. There may be potential for increased trade, but the trade there is overwhelmingly in China's favour, despite the fall in sterling. The one area in which the money goes the other way is education, with 85,000 Chinese studying in Britain or at British campuses in China. But cuts in higher education here and visa restrictions on non-EU nationals threaten this success.
Human rights are another difficult area. Meeting his counterpart in Beijing yesterday, Mr Hague quite rightly expressed concern about Tibet. But there are many other areas, too, where Beijing's record falls short: its network of prison camps, resort to the death penalty, limits on freedom of expression and persecution of the Falun Gong and other groups. Britain should not pass over China's faults, for all its future economic promise.
In apparent contradiction to his reputation as a Eurosceptic, Mr Hague has said Britain must be more adept in EU politics. Germany has shown how an advanced manufacturing and exporting country can benefit from China's rise. As it happened, Chancellor Merkel was also in Beijing yesterday, with a large German trade delegation, illustrating the difference in scale between its trade relations with China and our own. If Mr Hague is serious about Britain becoming a more significant player in Europe, a coordinated EU-China policy would be a good place to start.Reuse content