Britain is set to rethink its policy on China as views within government appear to harden in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, according to Whitehall sources.
It comes as former leading British diplomats warn that the coronavirus pandemic could have a lasting impact on the world order.
The crisis has already accentuated existing tensions between the two largest powers – the United States and China – they said.
It has also intensified a struggle for relevancy between global institutions like the United Nations and a trend towards nationalism, including among some liberal democracies.
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“We are at one of those watershed moments – a bit like after the Second World War,” said Lord Ricketts, a former national security adviser and former ambassador to France.
“What we risk is a world fractured into spheres of influence again. Clearly a Chinese sphere, an American sphere, a European sphere perhaps – rather weaker,” he said.
“That is not a comfortable place for the democracies of the world who need rules of the road to trade and to operate safely from the big powers.”
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In the UK, there is a desire to reduce reliance on Chinese products, such as personal protective equipment, which has been in high demand during the crisis, a Whitehall source said.
This is not just about diversifying the UK supply chain. It could also help London to call out Beijing without worrying about a Chinese product line perhaps being switched off in return.
“The thinking is that we are going to have a much more difficult relationship [with China] and we should lessen our dependence,” the source said.
The Spectator magazine reported last week that government work on British-Chinese relations has been brought forward as a matter of urgency, even as the rest of a foreign policy-led review of defence, security and other aspects of government business was delayed.
A second Whitehall source signalled that the article was accurate.
Image: Chinese President Xi Jinping
Asked to comment on the prospect of a China policy rethink, a government spokesperson said: “The UK’s approach to China remains clear-eyed and rooted in our values and our interests.
“It’s always been the case that where we have concerns we raise them, and where we need to intervene we will.”
The Spectator quoted an individual involved in the development of the new policy as saying the plan is to move the UK “off the trajectory of ever-increasing dependence” on China.
Another source was quoted as saying a keystone of the new approach is that we are “prepared to take economic pain to reduce dependence on China”.
The relationship with China – on course to become the world’s largest economy this decade – remains of huge importance to the UK as it seeks new trading partners post-Brexit.
But Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has already demonstrated a willingness to stand up to the Communist Party more forcefully than was the case under Theresa May.
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Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, on Friday offered to extend the visa privileges of Hong Kong residents to live and work in the UK unless China backtracks on a plan to impose a new national security law on the former British territory.
A decision to grant the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei access to the UK’s 5G network is also being revisited.
Officials from the National Cyber Security Centre, a branch of GCHQ, are reviewing the impact on the plan of new US sanctions against the Chinese company.
But this technical reassessment could potentially be used as a reason to change course.
It is something that would be applauded by the US which has piled pressure on the UK to reject Huawei, but would cause significant damage to ties with Beijing.
President Donald Trump has lashed out at China over the coronavirus pandemic, accusing it of cover up and delay after the first cases were identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
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But the ruling Communist Party insists it has been open and transparent, accusing US politicians of a smear campaign.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi even said political forces in the US were trying to push the two countries into a “new Cold War”.
Lord Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong, and Lord Ricketts do not see China as the victim.
Image: Anti-government demonstrators scuffle with riot police in Hong Kong
They suspect the government of using the global distraction of coronavirus to push forward its agenda overseas, including with the security legislation in Hong Kong.
For Joshua Wong, a pro-democracy activist in the territory, he claims the erosion of his freedoms is a sign of what liberal democracies will face from a rising China.
“We might recognise Hong Kong as kind of a new Berlin, but whether Hong Kong is West or East Berlin is hard to say or guarantee,” he said.
“It really depends on how we can stand up and fight back.”
Image: Joshua Wong is a pro-democracy activist in Hong Kong
A former senior Western diplomat who served during the original Cold War says it is wrong to liken that period to today’s contest between the US and China.
Unlike Beijing, the former Soviet Union was behind the US on almost everything other than nuclear weapons. It was also not integrated into the global system.
That makes any standoff with China a different scale of challenge, the former diplomat said.
Another dilemma accentuated by the pandemic is the tussle between international co-operation – such as the UN’s World Health Organisation, NATO, and the European Union – and nationalism, with the dominance of great powers.
The instinct of all countries to turn inwards rather than work together when the pandemic first erupted was notable, according to Lord Ricketts.
“I think we face three to five years of a very turbulent, difficult period, where the nationalist instincts in many countries are going to be to the fore,” he said.
“A lot of blame game, a lot of rivalry.
“But I hope people will draw a lesson that that’s not a good place to be. And actually we do need to get back to the kind of free movement of ideas, technology, research, of people, that has given us 70 years of growth and stability since 1945.
“That’s a hard lesson to learn. But I think we’ve got to learn it again.”
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Source : Sky News