Tania Branigan, The Guardian, 19 March 2015
You might call it one of the irregular verbs in international diplomacy: we engage, you accommodate, they appease.
US irritation over Britain’s decision to sign up to a new Chinese development bank has laid bare the deep international divisions over how to deal with the world’s newest superpower.
For the Americans, as for human rights groups and Chinese dissidents, countries like Britain are too willing to cede power to China as it grows wealthier and more powerful. One White House official accused the UK last week of “constant accommodation” of Beijing.
The Foreign Office says its approach to China is consistent and it continues to raise sensitive issues, but analysts see a marked change since Beijing punished London over David Cameron’s meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2012. They note a string of bilateral deals, regular visits by government ministers to China, emollient remarks on human rights and especially the muted response to the Chinese government’s tight restrictions on voting rights in Hong Kong, which has disappointed many in Britain’s former colony.
“All countries have of course become more accommodating to China,” says Katrin Kinzelbach of the Global Public Policy Institute, who has researched the EU-China human rights dialogue. “Cameron met the Dalai Lama, experienced a backlash and no one stood with him … It was the same when the Germans were in the same situation.”
Roderic Wye, associate fellow at Chatham House and previously a China and east Asia specialist at the Foreign Office, says Europe has “signally failed to produce any consistency in policy towards China. That in itself encourages China to press hard on issues they feel are important … they think sooner or later there will be a crack.”
Many suggest the same is true of Asian countries alarmed by China’s growing military might and assertiveness, but attracted by trade with and investment from the world’s second largest economy.
Norway is a good example. When the country’s Nobel committee awarded Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo the peace prize in 2010, its salmon exports plummeted. Government ministers took note. So when the Dalai Lama visited Oslo last year, no government representatives met him.
Guy de Jonquières of the European Centre for International Political Economy suggests the costs are “not terribly severe” for a reasonably sized and influential country, particularly as the Chinese economy slows and appears more precarious.
China-UK trade increased by 11% in 2013, during the Dalai Lama row, and China continued to seek cooperation at non-ministerial levels.
“The Chinese are intensely pragmatic and have an awful lot of stuff they want from us,” he said.
He suggests the chancellor has been too quick to offer Beijing advantages such as making it easier for Chinese banks to set up in London, loosening oversight.
“If all we want is to be a glorified Singapore, where making money and exports are all that matters in foreign policy, that’s fine – but let’s not kid ourselves if we want to be taken seriously by anyone else,” he said.
The more common accusation is that European countries are not simply selling themselves too cheaply, but trading human rights concerns for commercial interests.
“China assumes any accommodation from a foreign country comes from weakness – and they do not respect weakness. They will bully those who let themselves be bullied,” says Jorge Guajardo, formerly the Mexican ambassador to Beijing and now senior director at McLarty Associates in Washington.
“You acquiesce on human rights and China assumes you do it for economic reasons; they make more demands and you start acquiescing in other areas.
“India is probably one of the last countries to accommodate China on anything – and at the end of the day, they work very well together.”
Some go further, suggesting complaints about meetings with the Dalai Lama are strategic attempts to exert power through a symbolic issue in the first place.
It is easier for some countries to take a tough stance than others. While Angela Merkel has in some ways been firmer than her predecessors, that is also possible because of the strength of the German economy, Kinzelbach points out.
“If you accept only sticks and carrots work on human rights, what sticks and carrots can we use? We don’t have any left that are attractive or impressive enough for China any more, unfortunately,” she said.
She argues that the US itself has given ground on human rights issues, particularly at the beginning of the Obama administration.
“There was a real desire for partnership and China didn’t step up and deliver; it took advantage,” said Bonnie Glaser, an expert on Sino-US relations at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, in a more generous assessment. “It was the time of the financial crisis and China saw the US as weak.”
Then came the “pivot”, now portrayed as the “strategic rebalance” to Asia – welcomed by US allies but viewed by Beijing as an attempt to contain it.
While many China watchers in the US question whether the policy has been effective or even coherent, Glaser sees progress: in the joint declaration of action on climate change and in better negotiations over issues such as North Korea and Iran. That reflected attempts to build cooperation where the countries have common ground, while managing differences, she said.
“On cyber, South China Sea, trade policy – we have been very clear to the Chinese where we see our interests in jeopardy,” she added.
The US is more able than other countries to challenge China, but also keener to do so; Japan is in a similar, albeit weaker, position.
“The US consider they are the power in Asia-Pacific and, more than anyone in Europe, considers China’s rise as a losing game for them,” said Feng Zhongping, an expert on Sino-European relations at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.
While European countries would protect their relationship with the US, they also wanted to benefit from the opportunities for growth and development offered by China’s rise, he said.
Shen Dingli, professor of international relations at Fudan University, compared the US adjustment to China’s peaceful rise to the UK’s historical experience of facing a rising US. Britain constantly accommodates to its own interests, he said; France, Germany and Italy’s indications that they too will join the AIIB merely means that they “place their overall national interest, and the investment opportunity at this time, above the narrow interest of allying with America”.
Jean-Pierre Lehmann, professor of international political economy at the business school IMD, said: “The UK is not ‘constantly accommodating’ China; it recognises that China has certain positions and grievances, some understandable.
“I don’t particularly want to live in a world under Chinese power – but we have to engage intelligently and strategically, without too much hypocrisy.”
An FCO spokeswoman said: “Our approach to China is consistent. This is a relationship that matters and that brings with it a wealth of opportunities for closer working on issues that are important worldwide. That does not mean to say we do not have areas on which we differ, but we handle these through an established process of regular dialogue.
“We do not see a choice between securing growth and investment for the UK, and raising sensitive issues, including on Hong Kong and broader human rights. We raise them both and do so consistently – that’s what our policy of engagement is all about. We could not, and would not, do otherwise.”