Tom Tugendhat MP is Chair of the Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee
As the world gets to grips with Covid-19, it is increasingly clear that this unprecedented crisis will have a huge impact on almost all aspects of our lives. And while some changes may take years to fully appreciate, others are already staring us in the face – and requiring immediate action.
One of the biggest and most obvious is the need for a complete rethink in how we understand, and engage with, China. Not just in terms of the virus, but how we manage the longer term threat of this rising superpower.
We all know, for example, that Beijing’s long history of information suppression and disinformation at home, as well as abroad, contributed to the scale of the Coronavirus crisis. But have we thought about what that means in future: to have vast swathes of the global economy under the control of a Communist Party that prioritises its own political survival above all else.
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Likewise, we are already seeing how China – despite its responsibility in contributing to the current situation – is using the coronavirus as an opportunity to expand its influence in the world – recently spreading anti-US and anti-Italian propaganda. Have we stopped to think about how to cope with a sophisticated super power competing for influence like this on the world stage?
Whatever happens next, dealing with the coronavirus is likely to prove an important test case as to how we engage with China from now on – one that will likely inform how we go about dealing with pivotal issues like trade and security in future. In short, we cannot afford to get it wrong.
The challenge is unlike any before. We cannot isolate ourselves from China. We need to engage not just to contain this deadly virus but to work together on the challenges we all face. automation, climate change, demographics and much more will have a dramatic impact on China as well as everywhere else, and we need to find ways to work together. But cooperation can only come from understanding.
Some of our current difficulties are made worse because we have not invested in understanding what is happening in China and how the Communist Party is shaping the future. To enable us work with China as a partner not just a rival, we need to know what the General Secretary is planning but too few of us read his speeches.
Getting that relationship right will be the foreign policy challenge of our generation.
This is why I and fellow Conservative MPs have formed a new China Research Group: a dedicated forum in Westminster to provide information and informed debate leading to fresh thinking on our relationship with China.
We have known about unfair trade practices, commercial espionage, and human rights abuses for years but while we have sought to address some of these, there are many areas of trade links, international outreach and engagement that have passed us by. We need to appreciate the bigger strategy.
The Communist Party has a clear plan for China. Its quest for technological primacy, acquisition of global rivals and growing domination of global institutions show Beijing’s plans in action. But too few in the UK are focused on this.
The China Research Group will look in particular at three challenges arising from China’s rise – its diplomatic influence, industrial policy, and role in future technologies.
We want to understand how Beijing uses diplomatic tools to try re-shape the world in its own image; how it is seeking to win the technological arms race, mastering tools like artificial intelligence to secure future advantage; and how its ambitious foreign policy is likely to play out in practice.
While these might be seen as questions of foreign policy, they have a direct impact on our lives. We need to understand what is going on in China so that we can engage with caution and defend our interests. That in turn demands knowledge and research we aim to help provide.