​Salesman David Cameron makes up to China

Sreeram Chaulia
Dr. Sreeram Chaulia is Professor and Dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India. His latest book is ‘Modi Doctrine: The Foreign Policy of India’s Prime Minister’.
​Salesman David Cameron makes up to China
After straining relations with China by meeting exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama in May 2012, UK Prime Minister David Cameron effected a volte-face this week on an unabashed commercial visit that kept sensitive human rights issues at bay.

Gone is the defiance from Downing Street, which had previously rebutted Chinese demands for an apology after Cameron met the Dalai Lama by asserting that British leaders have the sovereign right to “decide who they meet and when they meet them.” Instead of that nonchalance and combative tone, the latest sheepish message from the UK government on the eve of Cameron’s business-centric three-day trip to China was that he had “no plans to meet Tibet’s spiritual leader again".

Correcting errors

The cost of offending China in terms of lost economic opportunities to Britain stared hard and cold at Cameron as he made this about-turn. Given that Cameron’s Conservative Party is a big champion of British private sector interests, there must have been immense pressure on him to discard the Dalai Lama and all the high moral ground that Britain and other Western powers occupy while dealing with authoritarian regimes.

The Chinese government had signaled last year that Cameron must “correct the error” about the Dalai Lama or pay a heavy price. Amidst rumors that the British premier had been “banned” from entering China, his originally scheduled tour of the country in late 2012 was postponed. Between that diplomatic setback and the latest warm reception Cameron got in Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu, the United Kingdom underwent a major course correction.

However much the British government denies it is jettisoning its advocacy on behalf of self-determination and human rights of Tibetans in China, the absolute silence Cameron has maintained on issues that might irk his hosts in Beijing shows that the UK has decided it can no longer afford to press for ideals in its foreign policy.

When faced with a cold shoulder from a China that Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg acknowledges to be “the great economic superpower of today,” the UK felt that politics of the soul matter less than that of the stomach.

Exports as panacea

Though there is fresh market chatter about a rebound of the British economy from the crisis that began in 2008, Cameron’s austerity and business-friendly policies have undoubtedly worsened the plight and delayed a sound recovery. With a domestic macroeconomic policy aimed at hurting the poor and succoring the financial oligarchs in the City of London, revving up consumer spending and confidence has been a Sisyphean task for the British government. Hence the onus being placed by Cameron on energetically tapping into the two biggest export markets in the world— China and India.

AFP Photo / Mark Ralston

Both the frequency of high-level engagements with China and India, and the composition of delegations that accompany British leaders when they woo these Asian powerhouses suggest that the UK is banking on them in particular to reach Cameron’s target of achieving exports worth 1 trillion pounds (US$1.64 trillion) a year by the end of the decade.

This week, Cameron brought in tow with what the BBC termed as the “largest UK trade delegation ever to visit China,” with executives of giant banking, pharmaceuticals and energy companies leading the retinue to try and prize open doors for their goods and services to reach the Chinese consumer.

Banking on Chinese reforms

Even as the UK itself is struggling to reorient from an over-financialized economy back to a manufacturing-based one, Cameron and the bevy of businesspersons who traveled with him to China have placed high hopes on an ambitious structural overhaul of the Chinese economy that is being attempted by President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang.

The timing of Cameron’s trip would have been helpful to test how deep the economic opportunity lies, following the recent Third Plenum of the 18th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee and its promise to undertake “comprehensive and far-reaching reforms.”

Western observers are salivating at the prospect of greater market-based incentives and freedoms being permitted by the CCP. Despite being a darling of Western investors, China has not been viewed as a level playing field for foreign players due to the inherent systemic privileges and protections enjoyed by its state-owned enterprises (SOEs).

If the Chinese leadership successfully runs the gauntlet of reforming its economy away from over-dependence on exports and investment and towards consumption by the growing middle classes, Western countries like Britain will smell a chance of a generation of breaking through and cashing in.

Beggars can’t be choosers

However, Cameron will do well if forewarned that both China and India are countries with a tradition of strong states that will continue to crack down on misdemeanor and fraud by Western multinational corporations on their soils. In Shanghai, the British Prime Minister defended his drug manufacturing colossus, GlaxoSmithKline, as “a very important, very decent and strong British business”. Such comments flew against ongoing high profile prosecution by Chinese authorities of this company for engaging in bribery in the healthcare sector.

Reuters / Toby Melville

Glaxo’s honchos were quoted in The Financial Times that they “hope Mr. Cameron’s intervention will help bolster their case” with the Chinese government. But with the CCP leadership intent on teaching a lesson to Western companies that are alleged to be cheating and overcharging Chinese consumers, the pressure will be on Britain to ensure that its corporations behave ethically in a country where foreign businesses are forever under the scanner for misdeeds.

These days, one does not hear British politicians complaining in the usual Western tone of contempt and frustration about the difficulties and obstacles posed to their companies in China’s regulatory snake pit. The bilateral relationship is now so asymmetrical in Chinese favor that everything and anything a British Prime Minister says in China is measured by the yardstick of whether it might upset the hosts and ruin the dreams of British companies. Presumably, if a Labour Party government were ruling the UK today, it would not have been as amenable to the lobbying interests of British corporations that desperately want a larger share of the Chinese pie.

As the old adage ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ aptly sums it up, an economically struggling UK has lost the leverage to try and hold China to account either on human rights or on the ambience for doing business. Cameron reckons that he might as well shut up, appease the Chinese and get on with bagging whatever economic deals they find it beneficial to grant.

Even a hitherto taboo area like Chinese companies acquiring majority stakes in Britain’s nuclear power plants, which fall under the category of critical national security infrastructure, is now up for grabs. Cameron really means it when he proudly proclaims, “no country in the world is more open to Chinese investment than the UK.”

Realist turn of declining powers

It is not unsurprising to see the UK abandoning the human rights and democracy-promotion components of its foreign policy towards China in order to satiate the hunger of British corporations. The precedent of British Petroleum (BP) influencing the decision to release the convicted Lockerbie bombing perpetrator, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, in 2009 and send him back to Libya is an open secret.

Britain and most Western European nations are moving towards a phase in their histories where all remnants of the ‘civilizing mission’ and the ‘white man’s burden’ in their foreign policies are being wiped out by the hard realities of economic decline.

British Prime Minister David Cameron walks along the Bund with Lisa Pan, vice president of Chinese mobile gaming company Rekoo, in Shanghai December 3, 2013. Picture taken December 3.(Reuters / China Daily)

Throughout the Cold War and even after it, Western European powers have embraced and worked with authoritarian regimes even as they put on a grand charade of promoting human rights. Now, ground down by a long economic depression, the preaching content in their foreign policies is losing its decibels.

The economic realism which Cameron displayed by promising to “respect” and “understand” China is a sign that the much-touted civilizational values-based leadership of Western Europe has met its nemesis at the hands of a new multipolar world order. The rise of China, and of other emerging economies like the BRICS formation, is setting a limit to Western liberalism and forcing a more hybrid international normative environment in which self-interest is speaking louder than altruistic universal principles.

Gateway to Europe or getaway?

One of the carrots the British Prime Minister has dangled on his China visit is that he would deploy his “full political weight” behind a proposed comprehensive China-European Union Free Trade Agreement. He even critiqued fellow EU members who “want to shut China off behind a bamboo curtain of trade barriers.” This was a jibe at France, Italy, Spain and a few Eastern European countries that are directly competing with Chinese state-subsidized manufacturers.

Cameron’s positioning of Britain as a more “complementary” economy with China, compared to some of its European peers, may be factually correct. But it further enables Beijing to divide the EU right down the middle as it did recently in the case of tariffs on Chinese solar panel imports. With Germany and Britain seemingly more complaisant towards China, while other European industrial exporting nations are less sanguine about Chinese predatory export policies, the idea that the UK can be a gateway for Chinese businesses to the rest of the European common market is not persuasive.

Right wing political pressures within the UK for a ‘Brixit’, or exit of Britain from the EU, and the heat Cameron’s Conservative Party is facing from the anti-EU UK Independence Party, render his ‘full political weight’ in the EU unappealing to China. Cameron’s pledge of a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU if he gets re-elected in 2015 has lost Britain a lot of its attraction in economic terms globally, from the United States all the way to China and India.

Age of salesmanship

Eleanor Byrne-Rosengren, a critic of Cameron’s abandonment of the Tibetan cause, has caustically described him as a “salesman” rather than a “statesman.” Why should we even expect a middle power that is predicted to be pushed out of the ranks of the top 10 economies of the world in the near future to exude statesmanship?

The empire on which the sun never set is long gone. The idealistic bullhorn which was used for partisan purposes on rival states has now been cast aside. Cameron has brought Britain down from its historic pedestal of moral self-importance to bow to reality.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.