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Competing with China: Policy before language

It goes without saying that the language certain politicians use is important. When referring to a foreign entity or event, many times they are speaking on behalf of their nation. This puts them in a position of immense power, but also peril, as they can unilaterally shift international perspectives and policies regarding their homeland in a few breaths.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) was rightly identified in the Integrated Review as a ‘systemic competitor’. Since the document’s publication in March 2021, it has become increasingly clear that, alongside Russia, the PRC will be the Britain’s foremost international challenge in the decade ahead. This is striking given a war of territorial conquest – waged by Russia against Ukraine – is currently underway in Europe.

A re-think is required by Her Majesty’s (HM) Government into how the United Kingdom (UK) should engage the PRC. It is clear Britain needs to build more resilient supply chains away from the Chinese market and lessen reliance on Chinese industry in strategic areas. It is also clear that increased scrutiny is needed into Chinese activity in Britain. The continued rise in assertive behaviour and bellicose language from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), as well as their own drive for self-sufficiency, has made this clear.

Sharpening Britain’s approach towards the PRC, however, need not be accompanied by sensationalist rhetoric, and the entertainment of hypothetical situations, that inflates the threat emanating from the PRC. This is not within Britain’s interests, and will not help the UK deal with the monumental challenge it faces. Of course, the CCP’s ‘wolf warrior’ diplomats willfully spread mis/disinformation about the UK and espouse hostile rhetoric. This does not mean that British politicians and officials should mimic them.

First of all, Britain does not want to see its relationship with the PRC derailed wholesale. A cutting off of communication between the two increases the risk of strategic miscalculation that could lead to unwanted escalation. The UK will also need to continue to engage with the PRC in certain areas to realise its future goals, such as in ensuring resilient critical minerals supply chains, in the short- to mid-term. Furthermore, it could also dissuade Chinese students from coming to the UK to study, something which presents opportunities for British society and its economy.

However HM Government opts to compete with the PRC, it should do so with subtle and skilful policy, not through shrill and clumsy remarks.

Secondly, many British partners across the globe will not be receptive to the inflation of the PRC threat and hostile British rhetoric. The PRC is an important and in some cases indispensable economic and technological partner to developing nations around the world, particularly in Southeast Asia and Africa. Many of these nations lost confidence in the liberal-democratic-capitalist model as a result of the Great Recession of 2007-2008, and it was in fact the PRC that limited much of the damage ensued for many developing countries. 

These nations – so-called ‘swing states’ – are loath to ‘pick sides’ in this new era of geopolitical competition. Britain will be more successful in achieving its objectives if it is not seen only as an actor seeking a transaction to undercut the PRC. Increased hostilities may also further encourage the CCP to dissuade these nations from engaging with the UK through forms of ‘discursive statecraft’.

Australia’s experience with the PRC over the last five or so years provides a perfect case study as the relationship entered a tailspin

Despite frequent Chinese over-reactions – the imposition of trade sanctions on Australian industries and the drawing up of the ‘Fourteen Grievances’ – the way the former Coalition government, led by Scott Morrison, handled the situation was not always effective. Rather than focusing on explicit policies to counter Chinese influence in the South Pacific, for example, it often dialled up the rhetoric and neglected the needs of close partners in the region. Upon winning the election in May 2022, Anthony Albanese, the new Australian Prime Minister, and Penny Wong, the new Foreign Minister, dialled down the rhetoric regarding the PRC that Morrison and Peter Dutton, the previous Minister for Defence, employed.

While it is not clear whether the Labor Party’s shift in rhetoric was, even partially, the reason relations between Australia and the PRC began to thaw – the CCP has previously used the appointment of a new government to dial down tensions in a face saving endeavour – the new Federal Government clearly refined its communication strategy towards the PRC. At the same time, the new government has sought to pursue policy focused on solving the domestic needs of specific partners, such as climate policy, particularly in the South Pacific, rather than solely seeking to undercut the CCP by implicitly asking them to take sides.

As a new British government takes shape in early September, it would do well to learn from Australia’s experience and think harder about policy towards the PRC. As the Integrated Review points out: ‘What Global Britain means in practice is best defined by actions rather than words.’ However HM Government opts to compete with the PRC, it should do so with subtle and skilful policy, not through shrill and clumsy remarks.

Patrick Triglavcanin is a Research Assistant at the Council on Geostrategy. He specialises in Indo-Pacific geopolitics.

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