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Imbalance of power – where does the UK stand on the international stage?

Foreign secretary Dominic Raab, during a press conference at Lancaster House in central London. Photograph: Peter Summers/PA. - Credit: PA

MICHAEL WHITE on a dangerous global climate exposing domestic weaknesses.

‘Walking the dog’, by Martin Rowson. – Credit: Archant

On Sunday I hunted down a book on my shelves which I hadn’t read for 40 years, but kept because it opened my mind to the underlying realities of Maoist China.

Chinese Shadows was written in 1974 by Belgian sinologist Pierre Ryckmans, under the pseudonym Simon Leys, after the worst of the Cultural Revolution but two years before Chairman Mao died. Such was its powerful indictment of communist Beijing’s rule that the author had to hide from its fashionably vengeful western adherents.

No prizes then for why I tracked down the book in the wake of Britain’s dramatic disengagement from that Cameron-promised ‘golden era’ of Sino-British cooperation. Instead we face daily confrontation over Chinese investment policy, the persecution of its Muslim Uighur minority and of Hong Kongers, above all its high-tech, cash-rich penetration of British public life and key infrastructure: 5G kit, nuclear plants and TikTok for the kids, unpicking all or some of it will take a lot of time, expense and political will.

All this alongside the belatedly-published intelligence report on suspected Russian interference in Britain’s democratic procedures – relatively overt in the 2014 referendum in Scotland, bot-driven in the Brexit referendum two years later and Theresa May’s 2017 election gamble. Islamist-preoccupied M15 took its ‘eye off the ball’ concluded the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) report on which the PM placed his plump bottom in October.

In contrast to US intelligence agencies, our own did little or nothing to investigate this ‘hot potato’. No.10 wants to keep it that way. Its ‘no need for a retrospective inquiry’ response on Tuesday morning was instant and done without consultation, showing yet again that Boris Johnson’s Downing Street can show a turn of speed to game the system when it suits. ‘No evidence of successful interference,’ it smugly asserts. But how do they know?

Isn’t this a bit sudden, lads, I wondered as the boy geniuses at No.10 ratcheted up the anti-Chinese rhetoric under pressure from Tory rebels in search of a cause, while soft-pedalling on this aspect Russian state meddling in our politics? Isn’t Johnson’s government already fighting a variety of chilly-to-cold wars against Russia over barely-disguised Salisbury poisonings, the seizure of Crimea and other hostile acts?

Doesn’t HMG’s disdain for serious trade negotiation with the EU 27 leave it increasingly dependent on Donald Trump’s volatile and overbearing White House? Isn’t the boss’s limited attention span meant to be focused on the EU/UK’s post-Brexit trade agreement. Not to mention the pandemic which – contra his assertion in the Sunday Borisgraph – is unlikely to be over by Christmas?

To which the answer is: ‘Yes, Yes and Yes.’ Back in the real world, bleary-eyed EU leaders emerged from their post-pandemic budget summit at 5.30 on Tuesday morning with their 750 billion euro ‘Next Generation’ deal. It took nearly five days with much bad temper and a breakdown in social distancing as haggling in sweaty side rooms led Covid masks and gloves to be discarded. At one point, the summit’s mum and dad, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, walked out in shared frustration. Very unsettling.

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Everyone now agrees that, in leading the ‘Frugal Four’s’ resistance to higher spending, the Netherlands has inherited the vacant British role of the EU’s Monsieur Non. Congratulations, prime minister Mark Rutte. Someone has to do it. ‘Spend, spend, spend’ Boris wouldn’t – even if he still had a vote. His boy, Rishi, is borrowing record amounts
(£125 billion in Q2) and giving key workers unfunded pay rises from the Magic Money Tree. ‘Tough choices ahead,’ says the chancellor. But not now.

Meanwhile the EU27 got their deal in the end despite ‘walkouts and fury’ headlines in the Mail. They did so via messy compromises over loans vs grants (50:50) and reduced pressure on the Polish-Hungarian authoritarians to behave better. And that’s the point. Cautious Merkel usually does as much as necessary, as little as possible. A form of joint euro-borrowing has emerged – not quite a ‘Hamiltonian moment’ for the rapper musical’s fans, says the Economist, legacy debt is not pooled. But faced with an existential challenge, the EU is still staggering forward. At 4.7% of EU GDP the package is bigger than the US’s.

It all compares favourably with the Trump-Johnson style of megaphone diplomacy: bullying and bluster, followed by surrender (Boris over the Irish Sea border), rebadging the status quo (Trump over the Nafta trade pact with Mexico), unilateral withdrawal (Iran, WHO, Brexit) or petulant disruption (WTO) and retreat, leaving North Korea’s ‘Little Rocket Man’ defiantly in post. Trump blows hot and cold on China and Russia, whose autocratic leaders play him along. John Bolton confirms our suspicions.

And us? Britain faces many of the same problems as our neighbours – soaring unemployment and debt, border control (all those smugglers’ dinghies piling up at Dover), Covid-19, climate change, the scary brilliance of AI and the tax-dodging tech monopolists. Russian subversion, China too. But we face them in not-so-splendid isolation, as we did not (contrary to Daily Express legend) in 1940 when the empire and a reliable US helped to arm, defend and feed us.

Before US secretary of state, the Mike (‘the WHO killed Britons’) Pompeo, flew into London this week, the prime minister let it be known he will not be ‘a knee-jerk Sinophobe’. In the Commons Dominic Raab offered Beijing ‘tough love’ to mend its increasingly aggressive ways. Labour’s Lisa Nandy and retired Brexit Bulldog, David Davis, joined ex-TA colonel, Tom Tugendhat MP’s campaign to tighten the screws. Balancing backbench armchair bellicosity with realism and the wider national interest will require delicate footwork.

Did I say ‘delicate’? Johnson famously/notoriously improvises, if not from day to day then very short-termist. We saw that in his flawed response/indifference to the looming pandemic, before he fell victim to the virus. We see it in dither and defective messaging still. The resultant mortality figures are hard to massage, though loyalists try. World-beating at last!

A successful UK ‘vaccine by Christmas’ would repair some lost prestige, so encouraging trial results from Oxford led seven Fleet Street papers on Tuesday. They are desperate for good news. But Oxford’s would not be the world’s only useful Covid remedy, everyone now realises. It is going to require a collective effort, as is the global economic recovery. Is it the ideal time to engage in a politically-charged trade war with China or Russia, let alone (as Trump may do) with the EU over Google taxes and regulation, German cars as his hostage? Of course not, not when you are already sanctioning Iran and are increasingly embarrassed by your close proximity to Saudi’s oppressive Crown Prince.

A Biden presidency next January – if there is one – would ease some of these dilemmas for clients like Britain, but not China or Russia. US sanctions on Chinese kit, as well as diplomatic threats over that symbolic UK/US trade deal, helped force Johnson’s Huawei U-turn. Whitehall had to choose. Yet Britain’s interests do not always coincide with Washington’s as the US squares up to China for challenging its military and economic dominance of the Pacific region. The UK has a legal treaty obligation to defend Hong Kong’s two-systems, the territory’s liberty now being dismantled. It has none to Taiwan except to uphold the world order, none to the Uighurs except to support human rights.

Before I first read Chinese Shadows, I had been led to believe that Chairman Mao had avoided the worst excesses of the French and Russian revolutions. Hadn’t Richard Nixon visited Mao in 1972? The book disabused me: Confucian authoritarianism could be more smothering than the Tsar and Stalin’s, the brutality of which I read as a teenager in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (1940). That book influenced me more than Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) or 1984 (1949).

After Deng Xiaoping, survivor of the Long March and two purges, took over (1978-89) he moved China towards market reforms that will soon make it the world’s largest economy. Critics called it ‘market Stalinism,’ but hopes that mainland China would evolve liberally to become more like Taiwan or Hong Kong persisted. In 2001 China was even allowed to join the WTO.

Remember how Ronald Reagan used to say how market economics and liberal democracy were inseparable? How shallow and naïve that now sounds. The extent to which China abused WTO rules on state aid, dumping, intellectual property theft, protectionism and much else was causing concern long before president Trump stumbled on the issue and president Xi rolled back incipient pluralism after 2013.

But middle-sized states, even sovereign ones like Boris’s Britain, have to live with the new reality, as Imperial Britain successfully did with the rising US power in the late 19th century (it also cheated economically) but not with the Kaiser’s Germany. Both old and emerging power fell disastrously into the now-much-cited Thucydides Trap like 5th century BC Sparta and Athens.

The Soviet economy was never good enough to pose a challenge except to long-suffering Russian consumers. Despite many mistakes and some crimes, the West did contain very real Soviet military power until it fell apart after 1989.

Containment is hard and requires patience and determination, clear strategic thinking even. However many cheerleader articles I read about Dominic Cummings’ reading lists and his determination to shake up Whitehall, or Michael Gove’s visionary speeches in Ditchley Park about our data driven future, what I actually see most days is petty spite, improvisation and low levels of competence among ministers and a demoralised civil service.

Chief nurse, Ruth May, dropped from the Covid press rota after refusing to back Dom’s Barnard Castle eye test in rehearsal? It seems so. No.10’s ethics chief, Helen McNamara, to be moved to a better job while her report into Priti Patel’s alleged bullying is shredded? That’s the speculation. Ditto Beefy Botham’s peerage for services to Brexit. That’s shabby even by recent standards. Julian Lewis MP, obsessive but quirkily independent, to lose the Tory whip for displacing No.10’s toady nominee, Chris Grayling, as new chair of the ISC. That’s a fact.

Then there are the allegations made against Robert Jenrick and the reports of government contracts awarded to associates of ministers and advisers without proper tender procedures. All states face such challenges. Someone told me the other day that there are even Mafia-like aspects to the financial services industry in saintly Canada. But dirty foreign money arriving here in tempting quantities adds to the risk of rot at or near the top, especially when combined with legitimate investment opportunities.

The ISC report fingered banks, estate agents, lawyers, peers as compromised enablers – ‘wittingly or unwittingly’ – by the rouble ‘laundromat’. It’s hardly been a secret. Nor have Russian donations to the Conservative party.

Even before Chernobyl (1986) no one suggested using Russian technology to build UK power stations or indeed toasters. China is different, much as Japan showed over a century ago how adaptable Asian societies can catch up on the West fast – and overtake it. We are the slow coaches now. Just look how we thought we knew better than South Korea, Taiwan or impoverished Vietnam in tackling Covid-19. Coming so soon after 9/11, the Iraq war and Western bank crash, the accumulated loss of grudging respect will be profound.

Chinese capital and engineering prowess has spread around the world at a rate which would have astonished Reagan or Deng, let alone Nixon and Mao who would all have made rapid ideological adjustments to take the credit. I remember feeling as queasy about Chinese involvement at Hinkley Point, Sizewell and – most important – using its own design, for Bradwell’s nuclear power plant, as I once did about the first Japanese car exports.

But cars are less important to society’s core functions than power stations, highly concentrated in the UK apart from renewable wind/solar, China involved in them too. Huawei has been in Britain for 20 years, offering what is often a cheaper and even better product. As with other states and their richer citizens buying important British assets – those empty blocks of luxury London flats are merely more conspicuous than rail companies – some took their money without asking enough questions until recently.

The powers obtained by the misuse of artificial intelligence bestows exponentially changes the equation. So in the new Cold War we currently observe a curious double-pronged approach. Traditional low-tech penetration allows Russian oligarchs, pro-regime as well as dissidents, to buy their way into social and cultural elites. Even more opaque pro-China lobbyists allow their paymasters to navigate business and political networks, as our equivalents would never be allowed to do at home – barely more than they were in the weird days when Simon Leys wrote Chinese Shadows in the foreigners compound in Beijing.

The other prong of the pincer is covert subversion, increasingly via disruptive social media. The hacking of Covid science research or power grids is an updated form of sabotage and intellectual property theft. That’s what Tuesday’s ISC report hammers home. Much closer to China than Britain – much more dependent on its trade too – Australia has pulled back at some cost to its economy. Fleet Street’s gleeful exposure of Chinese network by the 48 Group Club reinforces the fearful message. Veteran UK diplomats warn against a revival of ‘reds under the beds,’ but to be vigilant. Clear heads are needed, not hysteria.

It is a far cry from drinks for fellow-travelling trade union leaders at the gloomy Russian embassy on wealthy Kensington Palace Gardens (I went once in the 1970s) or industrial militancy to cripple the car industry. Online asymmetrical warfare conducted by bots spoon-feeding useful idiots is about sowing dissent and division, about weakening our citizens’ belief in their own institutions, the EU included. Yet the idea remains the same as it was when Lenin was not an embalmed mummy.

It is working better than it did before. The tragedy is that we too do more now to undermine our institutions as well. When Trump sends in federal troops to foment disorder in sleepy Oregon and threatens not to accept defeat in November – he did both this week – he digs democratic America’s grave. Those who persistently abandon their declared values quickly lose them.

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