By Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Sir Malcolm Rifkind is the Conservative Member of Parliament for Kensington. He is a Defense and Foreign Secretary and currently serves as chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee. The views expressed are his own.
News last week that Britain’s government plans to speed up visas for Chinese nationals is a reminder of the growing importance of the world’s second largest economy to Britain.
“The message will go out in China that we want people to come and do business here,” The Telegraph reported a cabinet source saying, before noting that the red tape associated with processing Chinese visas costs the U.K. economy $1.8 billion a year.
Yet though the economic opportunities are ripe, a telling anecdote from a few years back underscores some of the challenges Britain and others face in coping with China’s rapid ascent.
In November 2010, a British government delegation to China was faced with a classic diplomatic dilemma. It was a few days before Remembrance Day, the anniversary of the armistice that brought World War I to an end. During this period, Britons wear paper poppies as symbols of recognition of those who laid down their lives in service of their country in the poppy fields of Northern Europe, and by extension of all those who have since served in the armed forces.
But for China, the poppy is a symbol of the Opium Wars of the 19th century, and thus its national humiliation at the hands of Britain and other European powers. The prime minister and other senior members of the government were therefore asked by Chinese officials to remove the poppies from their lapels. The British delegation politely refused.
A little further back, in the 1990s, I was faced as foreign secretary with an even more awkward diplomatic issue – how to handle ties with the Dalai Lama. I chose, as did Prime Minister David Cameron last year, to resist pressure from Chinese officials (and from some on my own side) not to meet the Dalai Lama. Like Cameron, we offered a compromise in light of Chinese concerns, specifically that we would not meet him on government property. The Chinese protested, but there were no immediate consequences for our bilateral relations.
These episodes illustrate the sensitive nature of the decisions that other countries must sometimes make when balancing efforts to boost relations with China with ensuring that they still also stand up for the values they believe in. But in Britain’s case in particular, the poppy episode is a reminder of just how different the relative strength of the two countries is from when those two wars I mentioned were fought.
China is of course much stronger now than it was when I was foreign secretary, but British leaders and officials must still bear in mind that the trade-off between economic and trade considerations on the one hand, and human rights concerns on the other, is not as straightforward as some would like to portray it.
Any government’s primary responsibility is the pursuit of the prosperity, security and freedom of its own citizens. Boycotting all countries who have questionable rights records is not only not in our interest, but ensures that we have no relationship, and therefore few channels through which to influence and encourage countries such as China to enact reforms that are in everyone’s best interests.
The most fundamental reform that must take place in China today is meaningful changes that respect the rule of law. I remember discussing this very issue with my Chinese counterpart as secretary of state for foreign affairs, and I was assured that China did indeed believe in the rule of law. In China, I was told, all people must obey the law.
But this was missing the point – it is not just citizens, but governments who must be subject to the laws of the land, as interpreted by an independent judiciary, if justice is to be served. The Chinese model has brought great progress, but it is questionable how sustainable this progress will be. Note, for example, that China already spends more on internal security than it does on national defense. A Chinese commitment to the rule of law at both the national and international levels would ensure the rights of Chinese citizens, would give confidence to foreign investors, and ultimately boost global stability.
We cannot compel China to do so. Britain in the 19th century was able to impose its will on much of the world by force. It spoke the language of free trade (and sometimes even believed it), but the gunboats were always available to convince those who did not share such a commitment, as China found out to its cost.
Britain in the 21st century is a very different place. It is by no means as puny as some delight in suggesting: it still has the world’s 4th largest military budget, the 7th largest economy, and is a member of the U.N. Security Council and G-8. But its influence now depends more on leveraging its membership of numerous multilateral military, political and economic institutions to convince others to commit to a global rules-based order that is in everyone’s interest, not just our own.
As China rises, it must confront a similar choice to that which the United States confronted upon its rise to super power status after World War II. Back then, America chose to lead the construction of international institutions that have outlived the Cold War, and indeed will survive any foreign policy mistakes it may have made along the way.
China’s relationship with the United States is, rightly, considered to be the most important bilateral relationship in the world. However the United States is still far richer than China, has a vastly superior military, and a wholehearted commitment to its role as a key security actor in East Asia. In addition, the two countries are bound tightly together by a structural economic interdependence. It is therefore how China treats its neighbors, rather than the U.S. or indeed Britain, over the next few years that will likely tell us far more about the path down which China’s leaders wish to take their country.