‘China-proofing’ and the UK’s future foreign policy

In many ways, the UK is uniquely placed to benefit from the ‘Asian century’.  Its membership of the EU, soon a powerful international actor in its own right following the gradual institutionalisation of its Common Foreign and Security Policy, places it at the heart of key global decision making processes.  Additionally, its education and cultural sectors still exert a major pull globally and particularly in Asia.

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Image courtesy of Foreign & Commonwealth Office, ©2011, some rights reserved.

To further capitalise on this, decision-makers in Westminster have placed a key emphasis on adapting British foreign policy to ensure that it is able to function and thrive within an emergent Chinese paradigm.  The current coalition government has prioritised improving links with China across a range of economic sectors.  In the past year alone, trade agreements have ranged from a bizarre £45 million deal to export British porcine semen to a major deal between BP and the China National Offshore Oil Corporation worth £11.8bn.  Additionally, earlier this month H M Treasury became the issuer of the largest non-Chinese sovereign renminbi bond valued at RMB 3 billion (roughly £300 million); making the UK the first western country to do so.  Whilst the prestigious Chevening scholarships, the UK Government’s global scholarship programme funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, have recently seen an increase in awards aimed at students from China.

The importance of China to the UK’s long-term prosperity enjoys a seeming consensus across Parliament.  Prominent Labour front-bencher Liam Byrne has recently penned a book on the subject.[1]  Whilst shadow Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander, recently co-edited a collection of essays on future British foreign policy, one chapter of which focused on the need to make the UK ‘China-Proof’.[2]

However, amidst all this focus on China, UK policymakers risk excluding India as a major potential foreign partner.  Whilst India has not been able to match the recent growth of China, hamstrung as it has been by its unwieldy, decentralised democratic structure (whereas democratic concerns are not something the Chinese political elite have to worry about), estimates as to its future economic growth still place it as having the third largest consumer base by 2030.  Moreover, with Indian Prime Minister Modi’s economic reforms, which have placed attracting foreign firms and capital at their heart; annual rates of growth could outstrip the current anticipated six per cent to reach eight or nine per cent within the next few years.

In many ways, India poses a more natural fit for the UK.  As a former colony, there is already a much greater level of legal and institutional coherence between the two countries.  Working practices are also very similar and there is a greatly reduced language barrier.  Adding to this is the great number of cultural links between the UK and India strengthened through the Commonwealth, in addition to the 1.5 million Indians living in the UK – three times the number living in France, the European country with the second largest Indian expatriate community.  All of this, coupled with the UK’s international relations pedigree and foreign expertise place the UK in a unique position to forge a particularly strong relationship with India and act in an interlocutor role.

For this to occur, there need to be obvious practical changes in the ways the UK government conducts its foreign policy.  There need to be greater institutional links between the British and Indian civil service and the Westminster-Washington hegemony present at many levels of British government also needs to be broken.  Knowledge of India must match the present American expertise in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

However, perhaps more importantly, there also need to be more changes in the general ways in which the UK approaches its foreign policy and international relations.  Central to performing this interlocutor role successfully will be the ability to marry multiple external relations, and operate across a range of foreign policy arenas, institutional and otherwise.  The focus on ‘China-proofing’ exposes wider issues in the ways in which British policymakers conceive of the international policy environment.  British foreign policy has traditionally been unashamedly bilateral, favouring a few highly developed independent links rather than a broader, network approach – with the US v. Europe discussion present in British foreign policy circles evidence of this.  However, this approach appears increasingly anachronistic when viewed against the growing multilateral trajectory of the international political environment.

With the intensification of the processes of globalisation and the march towards an increasing Fukuyaman multipolarity, the notion of a Chinese paradigm, or indeed a paradigm dominated by any one nation-state, appears itself increasingly outdated.  The coming end of the unipolar moment will see international relations marked increasingly by large, flexible and often transactional working partnerships formed around different nodes of interaction.  The UK’s utility to its foreign partners (and India) in this international political environment will derive exactly from its links with a multiplicity of international actors.

In order for the UK to be able to benefit fully from the changed international political environment in this coming Asian century, it is essential that British foreign policy makers recognise the end of this past paradigm.  Efforts must be made to increase engagement with a wide range of countries, whilst working to ensure that key relationships such as with India remain at the heart of British foreign policy.  The UK is in a unique position to benefit from the Asian century and forge a new, special relationship with India.  However, without a vibrant multilateralism: the UK risks appearing increasingly irrelevant.

[1] Byrne, Liam. 2013. Turning To Face The East: How Britain Can Prosper In The Asian Century. Guardian Books: London.

[2] Alexander, Douglas. 2013. Influencing Tomorrow: Future Challenges for British Foreign Policy. Guardian Books: London.

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