China in the Integrated Review

A cross-Whitehall paper such as the Integrated Review will always disappoint those looking for the committee to design a horse and not a camel. This is unfair to committees and to camels: both can be useful in the right circumstances.

The early criticisms about the Integrated Review’s treatment of China – or paucity of it – are overdone. It is not a China strategy review, but one of the United Kingdom’s (UK) entire defence and security posture. We should welcome it for what it says on China, but be conscious that it also highlights the lack of a government China strategy and the great need for one. If the Integrated Review proves not to be a step on the way towards a properly articulated China policy, that will be the time for condemnation.

One can cavil with some of the review’s China elements, which are the inevitable result of many ministries’ input. There is no mention of China in the Strategic Framework, and even in the objectives under that framework, China comes in at number eight out of twelve (it is fair to assume that it also looms large, even if it is not mentioned by name, in number eleven on ‘State threats’). Yet on page 26, we are told that ‘China’s increasing power and international assertiveness is [sic] likely to be the most significant geopolitical factor of the 2020s.’ Indeed, if the big idea is a ‘tilt’ towards the Indo-Pacific, that necessitates a clear idea of what to do about China, which increasingly wants the area to be seen as its backyard.

One thing a China strategy will have to address, which the Integrated Review skirts over, is what precisely is meant by a China being a ‘systemic competitor’ (the EU’s 2019 review of its relations with China used ‘systemic rival’). It is interesting to compare this language with that coming out of Beijing. There, the most frequent word used is zhengdou (‘struggle’), a strong word, and it is frequently accompanied by mention of ‘hostile foreign forces’. In his first Politburo speech in 2013, Xi Jinping talked of the need for ‘Chinese socialism to gain the superior position over western capitalism.’ The Integrated Review talks of open trading economies needing to engage with China, while protecting themselves against ‘practices which have an adverse effect on prosperity and security’. But it is bigger than that. The British government must develop a China strategy that somehow maximises good relations with a power whose political, economic and values systems are not just different from ours, but combatively so. To use Chinese Communist Party jargon, we are being subjected to hostile foreign forces.

The Integrated Review has highlighted the questions to be answered on China – and skirted round a few. Critics of its consideration of China should hold fire until they see a proper China strategy emanate from Whitehall.

Another area where one hopes a UK China strategy will be more hard-edged is science and technology. The Integrated Review rightly identifies the need to take ‘an active approach to building and sustaining a durable competitive edge in S&T [science and technology]’ as well as affirming that S&T is an ‘arena of systemic competition’. It talks of the new Office for Investment. Meanwhile, the National Security Investment Bill is (belatedly) going through Parliament. But it would be a mistake to separate investment in companies aimed at obtaining sensitive technologies from our universities’ penetration for the same purpose. Buying brains differs little from hiring brains, and both companies and universities also suffer from theft. What is needed is a SAGE style body able to advise quickly all involved in S&T research what areas of research and which Chinese cooperation partners are acceptable, in the knowledge that in the grey areas there will be a need for political decision, just as with Covid-19  (which is why not just the Department of Business Energy and Industrial Strategy needs a say in the Office of Investment, but many other ministries as well). Bringing about a change of culture, promoting awareness in companies and universities is a major responsibility under a new China strategy.

There are two areas where the Integrated Review is perhaps deficient in not flagging their importance. This needs to be remedied in a British China strategy. The section on countering state threats to British democracy does not adequately encompass the main threat, which is from China’s ‘united front’ strategy. This goes far beyond disinformation. Neither the Counter-Disinformation Unit nor the Joint State Threat Action Team (which gets no mention) appear to be sufficiently broad-based and resourced to deal with a threat from China which encompasses not just traditional espionage and cyber attacks but a far wider interference.

The second is the question of enormous quantities of innocuous data being repatriated to China, not just through the obvious channels of Chinese-made CCTV equipment, but through ordinary apps (for a fascinating discussion of this problem, see Samantha Hoffman’s ‘Engineering Global Consent’, a vital read). This goes beyond the problem of the exploitation of personal data, as noted in the Integrated Review. In their publicity, companies in China boast of how they make such data into tools and instruments for the People’s Liberation Army and the security services. This is not an easy problem to deal with, but a China strategy will have to try.

The Integrated Review is right to resist some politicians’ call for declaring a Cold War with China. But what exactly does a policy of working with China in a way consistent with our security, prosperity and values mean? The Integrated Review does not enlighten us. Fair enough, if a UK China strategy is to follow shortly. But if the Integrated Review represents a decision to maintain ambiguity about China policy, to be cooperative on the surface, but tough behind the scenes, that will not wash. The British government will have to come off the fence and set out a series of concrete policies. This is not just because good fences make good neighbours, or because the likelihood is that either China or the United States will force the UK to do so, but also because it is not possible to aspire to be a global leader or model and be ambiguous at the same time. The nation’s allies and opponents will hardly be impressed if they do not know what Britain stands for and if they do not see it implementing its stance.

The Integrated Review has highlighted the questions to be answered on China – and skirted round a few. Critics of its consideration of China should hold fire until they see a proper China strategy emanate from Whitehall. It is long overdue. If it fails to come soon, then is the time to reach for the rifles.

Charles Parton is a James Cook Associate Fellow in Indo-Pacific Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy. He spent 22 years of his 37-year diplomatic career in the British Diplomatic Service working in or on China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

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