Cabinet split over approach to China

There appears to be a split in the cabinet over Britain's diplomatic approach to China, with deputy prime minister Nick Clegg and foreign secretary William Hague wanting a tougher approach.

It was reported yesterday in the Sunday Times that a cabinet split has emerged ‘over deteriorating relations with China and a surge in cyberspying blamed on Beijing’.

According to the report, a Whitehall source has said:

“Hague and Clegg are on the same side on this issue. They believe we need to stand up to the Chinese. For Clegg, human rights are a matter of principle,” the source said.

“For Hague, it’s about not kowtowing to the Chinese. He believes we need to stand up to them, or they will simply treat us with contempt. Cameron and Osborne are focused on trade. They want to keep the Chinese on side.”

This is not the first time such tensions have arisen.

While one foreign office insider told the Sunday Times that Chinese behaviour toward Britain had become ‘quite childish’ since the visit of the Dalai Lama, William Hague is on record as saying that the only way to resolve the underlying issues is through “meaningful dialogue between the Dalai Lama’s representatives and the Chinese authorities“.

But now, while Cameron and Osborne are interested in Chinese sovereign wealth for infrastructure projects, Hague “insists Britain must not bow to ‘coercive’ behaviour by the Chinese [or] reduce diplomatic pressure over human rights abuses”.

More generally, however, this is exactly what is happening. Cameron and Osborne want to continue to sideline human rights abuses, despite the internal and international pressure, so as to make good on trade, including dubious arms sales, to countries with abhorrent records.

As I reported last week, Saudi Arabia, which is ranked 160th out of 167 countries for democratic qualities by the Economist‘s Intelligence Unit, is the UK’s largest trading partner in the Middle East with annual trade worth £15bn a year. Moreover, it has £62bn invested in the UK economy.

But just a glimpse at the Saudi regime’s record should urge us to pressure the UK government to cut its ties immediately.

All the while, it has one of the highest rates of executions carried out in the world. In 2011, at least 82 executions took place; more than triple the figure of at least 27 executions in 2010. In 2012, a similar number of people were executed.

Additionally, of the 10 executed in the first five and half weeks of 2013, four were executed for drug related offences and four were foreign nationals.

All the while a father who allegedly raped and killed his own daughter last year, only to pay ‘blood money’ of the equivalent of £50,000, may very soon be released.

This all boosts the worrying prospect that the UK’s prosperity, as well as that of many other Western countries, will rely on countries that have odious track records for its own prosperity.

As the philosopher Slavoj Zizek wrote today for the Guardian‘s Comment is Free:

“If Europe alone is in gradual decay, what is replacing its hegemony? The answer is: ‘capitalism with Asian values’ – which, of course, has nothing to do with Asian people and everything to do with the clear and present tendency of contemporary capitalism to limit or even suspend democracy.”

It is hard to disassociate this trend by Cameron from his previous disregard and opposition to the Human Rights Act. He isgiving in to perceived fate of European countries, and may even be at the beck and call of the dictatorial capitalism emerging in Asian cities, and elsewhere.

As China grows, so the lifespan of liberal democratic capitalism as we know it wears thin, and we can forget the already dubious notion that human rights and democracy can co-exist with globalised free markets.

To be sure Cameron is not the architect of this trajectory, but he is certainly no obstacle to its looming certitude. This reported split in the cabinet shows once again which side of history Cameron is forwarding Britain – and its development has disturbing consequences.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.