London: Against the background of a UK wide fuel distribution crisis, Labour leader Keir Starmer gave his debut speech at the Labour Conference in Brighton. Most agree Starmer is good nice man, but has he got the personality to unite the Labour Party? The party is at war with itself—the centre-left is at the loggerheads against the radical socialists. Can Starmer dispel the ghost of Jeremy Corbyn and present an updated C21st version of Blair’s optimism and soft-Labour appeal?
As a prelude to the conference, Starmer wrote an essay putting Labour’s past and present in the context of Conservative governments (published by the Fabian Society). Starmer described the challenges of climate change, social inequality and nationalism.
In his conference speech Starmer castigated PM Boris Johnson for the shortage of HGV drivers, he talked about his own working class parents— his mother was a nurse, his career as Chief Crown Prosecutor and how this experience leans him towards tougher sentences for rapists, stalkers and domestic abusers.
He recapped a list of Tory misdemeanours and said Labour will work with pharmaceuticals, materials, defence, chemical engineering, consumer goods, environmental technology, transport and biotechnology sectors, and introduce more local procurement.
Starmer says Labour is the party of NATO, the party of rebuilding international alliances. He claimed his platform is work, care, equality and security and these are the tools he will use to lead the party.
This speech did not resonate with trade unionists or socialists, who want higher taxes for high earners and multinational companies; and more equality for cervixes, there was a massive hoo-ha around MP Rosie Duffield’s comment that “only women have a cervix”, this conundrum has now entered mainstream identity politics.
Starmer has an uphill task to sell his message to both red wall and blue wall constituencies, as many have swung to the Tories who under Boris Johnson have cunningly occupied centre-left territory.
Meanwhile another conundrum for the Tories gathers steam: China.
On 10 September, the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee published a report titled The UK and China’s security and trade relationship: A strategic void. The report examines the past decade of co-operation and confrontation, while there appears to have been a shift in the mood of the UK towards China, there remains considerable uncertainty over the government’s policy towards China. Nigel Adams UK Minister for Asia’s comments did not offer clarity. Dr Elizabeth Economy described the current US-China relationship as “Cold War-lite”; and Dr Tanvi Madan put India’s perspective forward: India is largely aligned with the US’s policy towards China, though there are some key differences in approach. Like other countries in the region, India would prefer to engage in initiatives that are not explicitly framed as “anti-China”.
The report is comprehensive, geographically and geopolitically, it covers all aspects of security, trade, investment, human rights, climate change, global health and soft power. It confirms that “Taiwan will be a crucial issue for the US and its allies, the prospect of miscalculation is always present. Even if not planned, there is a strong risk that future rhetoric from China will at some point provoke a major conflict”. The Lords recommend, “The government should consider whether its security assessment of China is aligned more with the US or the EU, recognising that the individual EU countries have differing views about the threat that China represents to their security, and that through bilateral engagement the FCDO needs to understand these variations (Lithuania, Czech Republic, Slovakia vs Hungary Poland, Serbia). These alliances may influence the level of involvement the UK can have in other alliances and partnerships in the region.”
The report concludes there is no alternative but to engage with China “but a country with such a different political system to the UK will always be a challenge, so the government needs to approach the problem in a strategic and co-ordinated way. A policy of deliberate constructive ambiguity can sometimes have advantages, but on such a crucial issue as its trade and security relationship with China the UK needs much more clarity than it has had hitherto”. A clear strategy setting out how the government will balance the competing elements of the UK-China relationship is essential.
On 26 September The China Research Group (CRG), chaired by Tom Tugendhat MP, launched their paper “The UK and China: Next Steps”. The CRG is the most prominent parliamentary group engaged in China observation, they observe during the past 18 months have seen many democratic countries including the UK become alarmed by and critical of China’s behaviour under Xi Jinping; a growing number of businesses, universities and other institutions found themselves caught in the middle as US-China technology competition heated up. Beijing’s increasingly aggressive approach to its domestic and foreign affairs have given Chinese Communist Party leaders a new found confidence that its authoritarian, highly centralised political system is superior to those of liberal democracies.
Human rights abuses in Xinjiang, political and press freedom repression in Hong Kong, societal control in Tibet and Inner Mongolia have changed the perception of Xi in the West.
UK has published the Integrated Review (IR) that characterised China as a “systemic competitor” but CRG say the IR did not reveal how the government will deal with Chinese state-backed threats to British Critical National Infrastructure. There is a new caution around “High Risk Vendors” and foreign takeovers in the telecom, energy and academic research sectors. CRG highlight the differences in the EU’s and New Zealand’s approach to China and “how much of Asia and the developing world still seems hesitant to place their trust in the US as a reliable partner following the unpredictable Trump era and have chosen to hedge their bets between the US and China”.
CRG are uncomfortable with UK’s lack of clarity and longterm strategy, the group note “There are moderate thinkers who want to see China rekindle relations with partners abroad and see more aggressive posturing as harmful to these ambitions. China is far from achieving self-reliance or dominance in technically complex industries like semiconductors.”
With the likelihood of Xi’s third term as General Secretary the CRG call for a deeper understanding of China’s people, culture, language, history, domestic dynamics and the direction of global attitudes towards China. CRG query if “The 12th Ministerial Council meeting at the WTO later this year could also set the scene for further pressure, while it remains to be seen whether China will commit to the necessary economic reforms that would facilitate its accession to CPTPP.” This brings into focus the issues around decoupling or re-evaluation of supply chains in critical and digital infrastructure. Clearly the group agree China cannot be ignored, and wish for UK to retain benefits from a relationship with China and preserve peaceful relations, while still protecting UK national security. CRG’s top conclusion echoes the Lords’ “Develop and publish a UK-China strategy which sets out a clear framework for engagement, and adapt existing government structures to reflect China’s status as the ‘most significant geopolitical factor’ of the coming decade.”
CRG have a useful list of complimentary policy recommendations including “Strengthen oversight and transparency in the UK’s partnerships with China in government, critical national infrastructure, and higher education.” To protect the UK’s openness to foreign investment, a new Investment Security Unit is proposed, “this given the same resourcing and input from the security services that CFIUS enjoys in the US; to counter-interference the government should consider leveraging expertise from across government departments in a specific counter-interference group, perhaps modelled on Australia’s National Counter Foreign Interference Coordinator’s Office. In particular, the UK should also look to expand transparency on lobbying through client disclosure lists and strengthen ACOBA’s powers.”
The final recommendation is that UK continue building stronger alliances and to build consensus in the G7, exploring the framework of the D11 as unifying forum.
Additionally a new report by Hong Kong Watch shows that “despite lip-service to the importance of responsible investing and Environmental Social and Corporate Governance priorities, major international pension funds are heavily invested in Chinese companies with problematic human rights records. This information gap has provided cover for financial institutions to pursue profit without regard for the social impacts of their ties with firms that are closely affiliated with egregious rights abuses in Hong Kong or Xinjiang.” HKW is a British charity founded in 2007, which researches and monitors threats to Hong Kong’s basic freedoms, the rule of law and autonomy as promised under the ‘one country, two systems’ principle which is enshrined in the Basic Law and the Sino-British Joint Declaration. HKW does exactly what it says on the tin and provides independent, comprehensive analysis and thought leadership on freedom and human rights in Hong Kong. HKW has spoken out for Hong Kong in parliaments in the UK, the US, Canada, Germany, the EU, Australia, New Zealand and ASEAN.
Their international experts have been active briefing, and advocating to policy-makers, parliamentarians and the media, and mobilising public awareness and support.
Johnny Patterson, Policy Director of HKW says “There is a clear knowledge gap between financial professionals who know that enormous amounts of the money of ordinary people, institutional investment, pensions and government funding is being invested in China, and the members of the public, media and policy makers who would have serious ethical and practical reservations about what seems to be a reckless and problematic course of action…some Western investment in recent years runs counter to the stated foreign policy interests of democratic governments and national security. China’s strategy of civil-military fusion is particularly important. This is the government’s strategy to harness civilian enterprises, particularly dual-use technologies, for military ends. Institutional investment in some Chinese firms in key industries may inadvertently fund the upgrading of the Chinese military.” In the foreword to the report, exiled Hong Kong lawmaker Dennis Kwok said: “As authoritarian governments around the world crackdown on democracy and freedom, businesses should not play a complicit role…”
The pressure is on for Boris Johnson to come clean about his government’s plans and policies for China, the time for evasion, obfuscation and passivity is past.
In other news Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi dropped into London on the way back from UNGA. He held meetings with Liz Truss- Foreign Secretary, Philip Barton- Permanent Under Secretary FCDO and Lord Tariq Ahmad- Minister of State FCDO. It is thought he discussed the cancellation of England’s men and women’s cricket tour of Pakistan, Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan, and as usual he brought up Kashmir.
Qureshi also had a meeting at the Pakistan High Commission with Tobias Ellwood-Defence Committee Chair and Tom Tugendhat-Foreign Committee Chair.