Cameron’s foreign policy ignorance damaging to Britain’s interests

Cameron’s “liberal Conservative” foreign policy will consign the UK to a period of parochialism and declining influence. Let’s hope it is exposed tonight.

Our guest writer is Tom Rafferty, a visiting research fellow at Peking University’s Center for International and Strategic Studies

David Cameron’s performance in last week’s leaders’ debate has been widely dismantled. But largely missing in the post-debate analysis was any reference to Cameron’s comment that the UK needed to maintain an independent nuclear deterrent because “we don’t know what is going to happen with Iran, [and] we can’t be certain of the future in China”.

This is a major diplomatic gaffe which, ahead of the second leaders’ debate on foreign policy, raises a number of questions about the Tory leader’s grasp of international politics. It is reflective of wider problems in the Conservative Party’s thinking on foreign policy.

Let’s get some facts straight. China is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the only nuclear state with a ‘no-first-use’ policy. It has not been involved in a major military conflict since the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979 and deploys more troops on UN peacekeeping missions than the US, UK and Russia combined.

China’s record on nuclear proliferation has not always met western expectations – it helped Pakistan develop nuclear missiles in the 1980s – but it is now a key partner in efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons and prevent them falling into the hands of terrorist groups. Beijing has a strong interest in preventing a nuclear arms race in East Asia and is committed (rhetorically at least) to a world free of nuclear weapons.

Identifying China with Iran as a comparable threat to international security is therefore bewildering. Tehran has pursued a uranium enrichment programme against UN Security Council resolutions, remains subject to wide-ranging international sanctions and is in possible violation of the NPT. Iran looks destined to become an international pariah state.

China is a country that has transformed itself over the past 30 years and adopted the principal norms and rules of the international system. Its economy is interlocked with our own. It is worth remembering that China has voted in support of UN sanctions on Iran in the past and is reported to be considering doing so again.

What, then, was Cameron thinking? A generous interpretation would put this down to a slip of the tongue and suggest he meant to say North Korea – but the Conservative Party has more or less confirmed that he intended to say China, suggesting Cameron only wanted to “demonstrate the extent of uncertainties in the world”. Indeed, he is rumoured to have made similar remarks at a local hustings earlier this week. The more likely explanation is therefore that Cameron holds some profound misconceptions about the nature of China’s rise and what it means for the UK’s national security.

It is difficult to think of one strategic scenario involving China that requires the UK to have nuclear capability. Is Cameron suggesting the UK involve itself in any conflict over Taiwan? Or is he seriously predicting that Britain will one day need nukes to keep an expansionist China at bay? Does he have a “yellow peril” vision of Chinese troops marauding over the Middle East and Europe? As with his economic policy, Cameron appears to be channeling the instincts of Margaret Thatcher. Whilst the rest of the world engages with China, he has positioned himself as an outmodish purveyor of China threat theory – a reincarnated “Cold War warrior”.

His comments have not gone unnoticed in Beijing. They only serve to confirm impressions here that the west prefers to arrogantly hector China rather than give credit for the progress that has been made. The government is disinclined to listening to such pontifications when China’s economy is currently driving global economic recovery.

Liberal Chinese scholars also point out that such comments only give succor to China’s policy hawks in the domestic debate on foreign policy. Whatever one thinks about China’s political system, the UK has no alternative but to work with China on a range of global economic, security and environmental issues. To presume otherwise would be seriously detrimental to the UK’s national interests.

The election has so far understandably focused on economic issues, but this has served to disguise what a shambles Tory foreign policy has become under Cameron. The decision to withdraw Conservative MEPs from the mainstream European People’s Party has left the Tories isolated in the European Union and potentially unable to effect change.

Cameron is apparently not highly regarded in Washington and his party’s Euroscepticism is viewed as unhelpful by the Americans. With his latest comments on China, Cameron has managed to alienate another key international constituency. Together the EU, US and China will shape the global politics of the 21st century.

The Conservative Party’s manifesto is very thin on foreign policy content. Beyond the obvious politicking on troop numbers and equipment, there is no vision of Britain’s place in the world. Major international security issues are reduced to vague promises. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, for instance, the Tories say they will “work towards greater stability” but set out no concrete prescriptions as to how they will do so.

The overall impression is of a party that has not only failed to engage in substantive thinking on international affairs, but is also fundamentally uninterested in the outside world. Cameron’s “liberal Conservative” foreign policy will consign the UK to a period of parochialism and declining influence. Let’s hope it is exposed tonight.

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