China’s authoritarian rulers are presenting themselves as a viable rival to democracy and have played the UK economically, Stephen Kinnock, the party’s foreign policy spokesman on China, has said.
In a significant hardening of Labour’s stance towards China, he also described David Cameron’s golden era of engagement with China as “an abject failure”, adding the UK has been naive about China’s intentions. Kinnock called for what he described as a “respect-based realism” towards China, and said he feared at present the UK had insufficient strategic independence from China to stand up to the country’s intimidation.
The UK, he said, “had rolled out the red carpet for China and got very very little in return”. He pointed out that the UK is running a £22bn annual trade deficit with China.
“It feels like it has been one-way traffic on the economy,” he said. “You can have a debate about trade figures but I think to a large extent we have been played … by a narrative that there was going to be an alignment of the international rules-based order, that there was going to be a slow but steady alignment with democratic norms. That clearly has not happened and the relationship has been too one way.”
Kinnock also proposed smarter and beefed-up takeover rules to protect UK firms by including new national security criteria.
He called for a reset based on mutual respect and questioned whether China at present had any respect for the UK. He revealed he had recently met with China’s “wolf warrior” diplomats at the Chinese embassy in London and found them to show very little respect and instead be largely aggressive.
Kinnock has recently been appointed to the front bench by Keir Starmer, and his remarks are understood to be part of a Labour review of its stance on China and mirrors a similar shift in thinking on the Conservative benches.
Speaking to the Radix UK thinktank on Monday night, he said that “managing the rise of China is the number one geopolitical challenge the world is facing” and added there was no single global challenge that can be handled without engagement with China. “All roads lead to China,” he said.
But he said there was very little evidence that the West was exacting influence over China’s political trajectory. “If you look at the increasingly hard line they take on human rights issues, the Uighurs, what has been happening in Hong Kong or the position on Taiwan, there is very little evidence of any kind of success in terms of exerting or projecting our influence,” he said.
He warned China was increasingly a systemic rival, seeing “its model of responsive authoritarian government becoming something that it sees as a viable alternative to democracy.
“That is a message that is being consistently pumped out. Particularly after what has frankly been a quite messy response to managing the coronavirus issue, China is putting itself forward as ‘look, our model of governance is the one that the world should be adopting’, so we need to be very conscious of a move from a transactional relationship into a systemic rivalry,” he said.
He insisted that his criticisms did not detract from his admiration of China’s remarkable achievements over the past 30 years, or his call for mutual respect, adding: “There is a big question whether it is mutual and I am forced to draw the conclusion that, as things stand at the moment, it it not. I have had a conversation in recent days with someone that might be described as a wolf warrior diplomat and I would say there was very little respect in that conversation. There is a tone of what I would say was real aggression coming forward.”