THE announcement from Tom Tugendhat MP, who chairs the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, that a new group of MPs, the China Research Group (CRG), is forming in order to get a better understanding of China and its global ambitions, is to be warmly welcomed.
It certainly has a challenge ahead if it is to catalyse the seismic change in UK-Chinese Communist Party (CCP) relations that’s needed. Setting this out last Friday, Mr Tugendhat accused the CCP of putting its own survival ahead of that of victims of the coronavirus outbreak.
The coronavirus crisis he said has underlined the urgent need for a better understanding of China’s place in the world and of our economic and diplomatic engagement with it: ‘Beijing’s long pattern of information suppression has contributed to the unfolding crisis. The (Chinese Communist) Party are now using the current emergency to build influence around the world.’
Until now, however, any discontent expressed by MPs about Communist China’s actions has been underwhelming, to say the least, and pretty much limited to sparse debates on Hong Kong, forced organ harvesting and genocide of the ethnic minority Uyghurs.
Surprisingly few MPs have put their heads above the parapet to demand debate over the Government’s decision to involve Huawei in the UK’s 5G network. To date, those Tory rebels who have been pushing to overturn Mr Johnson’s controversial decision have had little effect.
With Tugendhat’s announcement, will we see the political environment change and an effective anti-CCP caucus coalescing as a result of the China-born Covid-19 pandemic, with Beijing’s behaviour acting as the banner around such a group can rally?
And with Sir Keir Starmer’s election as Labour leader, will non-Tory MPs join or lend it support? How reproving or critical of the Communist regime in Beijing he proves to be is a test for Sir Keir.
It is without doubt an opportunity for him to show that under his leadership his party, whose forebears led the anti-appeasement movement of other evil regimes in the 1930s (Soviet and Nazi), is no longer a crank offshoot of Militant and the Socialist Workers Party, and that his new, supposedly mainstream, shadow cabinet can return to the ethical foreign policy Robin Cook stood for in the not-too-distant past.
What, after all, could be less ethical than unrestricted commercial and political dealings with this appalling regime, currently engaged in genocide, espionage, widespread animal cruelty and environmental degradation?
Recent weeks have seen MPs Sir Iain Duncan Smith, David Davis and Bob Seely stepping up the pressure on the Government. Since tabling their amendment to the Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Bill, they have continued with their outspoken attacks on China, showing some courage in taking on both their Government and the UK’s number one cyber warfare adversary.
Tom Tugendhat joins their ranks with his launch of the CRG. It is, at the moment, a Conservative parliamentary group modelled on the European Research Group (ERG), its purpose to debate and develop policy towards Communist China, and to transform attitudes in Parliament.
Whether the West can actually ditch China is a moot point and will be high on the CRG’s agenda. Like other countries, Britain has looked to China during the coronavirus crisis to obtain life-saving materials such as testing kits and ventilators.
While China doesn’t rank among Britain’s largest trading partners, in areas where the two countries do engage, such as the technology and financial sectors, the UK has significant ties. Will it be prepared to upend them? Non-real estate direct Chinese investment in the UK was last year reportedly running at over £8billion. Extricating the UK is a significant challenge.
Hopefully the coming months will see an escalation of activity from the new anti-CCP caucus emerging in Parliament. What conclusions they will come to and how this will influence UK policy towards Communist China is yet to be seen.
But in immediate practical terms, regarding the country’s 5G arrangement with Huawei – despite the Government whipping against the Duncan Smith Huawei amendment, the group is still calling on Mr Johnson to accept it.
It is to be hoped the CRG will create the political pressure necessary to focus the Prime Minister’s mind and to keep Dominic Raab to his commitment that, once this coronavirus crisis finally passes, it will no longer be ‘business as usual’ with China.
In the immediate future, both the regime in Beijing and the Government here need to get used to the idea that the UK’s appeasement of Communist China must come to an end.