China would be a fickle and dangerous ally for post-Brexit Britain

Brexit is going to divide us from Europe at a time when the world cannot afford it

Geraint Davies
Thursday 17 January 2019 12:33
China on the arrest of Huawei employee in Poland

A Canadian man being sentenced to death, while others have been detained, should send severe shockwaves through the international community, and serve as a warning to Brexiteers hoping to secure shiny new trade deals with China.

Already it is increasingly clear our economy is too reliant on China. Apple, Samsung and Jaguar have all warned that their UK businesses are being hit by the slowdown affecting the world’s most populous country. As a result of this, combined with the potential shock of Brexit, Jaguar Land Rover announced it was streamlining UK operations – at a great cost to British jobs.

When Britain voted for Brexit it was in the middle of David Cameron’s “golden era” of UK-China relations. The British political establishment and media crooned over the possibilities of untapped markets, unaware that being too close to Beijing is a double-edged sword.

Huawei technology was incorporated into our 4G network, Confucius Institutes (non-profit educational groups affiliated with China’s government) were set up in our universities, and a “dreadful deal” was signed with a Chinese state-run firm to fund Hinkley Point nuclear power plant – in my view, stopping the development of green tidal technology in my Swansea constituency.

Fast forward to 2019, and how things have changed. The UK government has launched an inquiry into Confucius Institutes, with critics concerned they are designed to spread propaganda; British Telecom has removed Huawei technology from our 4G network amid concerns raised about the firm’s presence in telecoms infrastructure. Add to that those job losses at Jaguar Land Rover and economic damage from the Hinckley Point deal.

The dangers of China’s growing influence in the world are increasingly clear. Since Canada arrested Huawei chieff financial officer Meng Wanzhou, on suspicion she had helped coordinate the illegal circumvention of international sanctions on Iran (claims she denies), the country has sacrificed its prospective new trade deal with China, the country’s second biggest trading partner.

The tit-for-tat gangster politics that followed is concerning, as China flexes its muscles and does as it likes. China’s authoritarian methods pose a great threat to our liberal values of human rights and freedom. From Hong Kong, where student protesters are being locked up, to Xinjiang where up to 1 million Muslims are in arbitrary detention in “re-education camps”. The Chinese people do not enjoy many basic rights and freedoms. Abroad, Beijing is funding and empowering authoritarian leaders from Southeast Asia to Africa.

China’s vision is global. President Xi Jinping’s “belt and road initiative” is the biggest global powerplay we have seen in decades. The $1 trillion worth of investment and loans in foreign infrastructure is trapping countries across the global south into debt, with Sri Lanka, among others, forced to literally cede territory to China after defaulting on their loans. The result is that many nations now pledge allegiance primarily to China, and Xi’s ambition is to fundamentally reshape the geopolitical map.

China on the arrest of Huawei employee in Poland

Since Brexit, the diplomatic situation worldwide has fundamentally changed. Many of us have been caught unawares by China’s sudden rise and are worried they are using their power so aggressively. Is it really the time to leave behind our great European allies, one of the greatest bulwarks of liberal democracy?

Canada is also faced with soured relations with the US, their biggest trading partner, putting them in a precarious situation. With Trump in the White House, the last thing the world needs right now is for European nations that still believe in human rights to be falling out. A no-deal Brexit or Theresa May’s failure of a compromise is going to divide us from Europe at a time when the world cannot afford it.

Brexit was sold to the British people with the idea there were untapped opportunities which the European Union stopped us from enjoying. For many at the time, China was their imagined land of opportunity. It is now clear this was merely a fantasy. Their economy is weaker than we thought, and their diplomacy is too narrowly nationalistic. Our true friends are in Europe.

It’s like Brexiteer David Davis once said: “If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy.” And when a country is afraid to call out human right abuses, it ceases to be an arbiter of those rights. The British people deserve the chance to make an informed decision based on this new and profoundly significant information. A people’s vote on the terms of the deal is the only way forward.

Geraint Davies is the Labour MP for Swansea West

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