Westminster Hall: China/UK policy

Mark responded on behalf of the Government to a Westminster Hall debate called by Leo Docherty MP regarding UK policy towards China. Mark's response to the debate is pasted below and can be viewed in the above clip. You can find the debate in its entirety here.


The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)

I thank my jousting partner, the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), for her robust views. In a relatively short time, I will try to say a little in response.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) for securing this debate, giving me the opportunity to set out the Government’s position on what is undeniably the single most important geopolitical bilateral relationship that the UK has, and will have, in the decades to come. The “golden era”, which was announced in 2015 by the then Chancellor, reflected the importance of that closer bilateral relationship.

Our relationship with China is broad and deep, involving constructive, positive and frank dialogue on major global issues and distinct challenges as well as opportunities, but it has the potential to bring enduring benefit to both countries. We are clear and direct when we disagree with China. Our approach is clear-eyed and evidence-based. For example, only at the end of last year we called out China as responsible for a particularly damaging cyber-intrusion.

The relationship is and must continue to be firmly rooted in our values and interests, but I absolutely accept the warnings of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin). To my mind, he was a little too relativist—that was the criticism—but his warning is important, both in the broad sweep of history and in the risk that in some of what we say we can be accused of being hypocritical, given our track record. I will come on to the rules-based international order in a moment or two, but he is right that that order was not set in aspic in 1945. We cannot simply hold firm, saying, “That’s it, that’s the rules-based order and we can say no more.” I am afraid that we cannot talk just about universal human rights without recognising the change in the world, the rise of China and India, and therefore the need to adapt and evolve the rules-based system with those two countries firmly in mind. Indeed, we need to engage firmly with them if it is to be a system that we can all rely on for all our citizens.

The relationship between our two countries is of global significance. We both are permanent members of the UN Security Council and the G7 economies, frenetically active on a range of global issues. We have together forged constructive collaboration on shared challenges. At the Security Council we address together issues such as international security and North Korea. On global challenges such as healthcare advances, climate change, money laundering, people trafficking and tackling the illegal wildlife trade, we have and will continue to have a lot in common.

I will try to cover all the issues that arose in the debate. On trade, in a post-Brexit world, trading relationships with non-European countries will become ever more important. It is anticipated that in the very near future China will become the world’s largest economy. ​It is therefore welcome that the UK’s trade and investment with China are at record levels, currently worth more than £68 billion a year. We are seeking an ambitious future trading arrangement and will want greater access to China’s market, to expand and develop our economic links, not least in the service sector, as China continues to reform and open up. During the Prime Minister’s most recent visit to China, our Governments launched a joint trade and investment review, which is designed to identify a range of opportunities for us to promote growth in goods, services and investment, which in my view is critical in a post-Brexit world.

I was not sure it would come up, but my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez) and the hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) raised our relationship with national security and Huawei. China has become an increasingly important source of investment for the UK, and we are one of its most important investment destinations. Ours is an open economy—I take on board the concerns raised by the hon. Member for Warrington South (Faisal Rashid)—and we welcome inward investment, but like any country we must ensure it meets our national security needs. That is true when we look at investment in key national infrastructure—raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot—whether from China or elsewhere. As we look at our 5G telecoms infrastructure, I assure the House that we will have robust procedures in place to manage risk and we are committed to the highest possible security standards. The Government will take decisions on the 5G supply chain based on evidence and a hard-headed assessment of the risks.

I was on the Intelligence and Security Committee in the 2010 Parliament when the issue of Huawei was first raised. It was raised at a conference in Ottawa, where we saw our counterparts from the US and Australia, as Five Eyes nations, take differing views both from each other and from us on some of these issues. Through the National Cyber Security Centre, the UK Government have undertaken a thorough review of the 5G supply chain to ensure that the roll-out of 5G is secure and resilient.

As many Members may know, Huawei has had a long-standing joint venture with BT going back almost a decade and a half. Arguably, those who oppose Huawei having any more involvement will have to recognise that that has already been worked through. The extensive review that we now have will go far beyond individual vendors or countries. The decisions of that review will be announced in due course to Parliament. We want to work with international partners to try to develop a common global approach to improving telecoms security standards. We must all recognise that we live in a world of the rise of the fourth industrial revolution, of artificial intelligence, robotics and all the technology. Almost inevitably, there will be global standards. China needs to be fully engaged in that debate, in a way that India already is in cyber. We will have to make some very difficult decisions, but the choice in relation to Huawei has to be to try to engage, recognising that some standards are different, but to try to get as much protection as we possibly can.

To answer the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland, I am very pleased that Mark Sedwill is out in China, with 15 other permanent secretaries, allegedly. That seems a sensible statement about the breadth and importance of ​our relationship across Government Departments. Some of the press reportage has suggested a dispute between Departments. We recognise the importance of the China relationship, and of course there will be some disagreements on issues between Departments—

Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab)

Will the Minister give way?

Mark Field

I will not, if the hon. Lady will excuse me, because I want to move on to human rights issues.

The hon. Member for Warrington South and my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster raised the issue of belt and road. Foreign investment will be essential to the success of the belt and road initiative. We have made it clear that we regard ourselves as a natural and willing partner for global infrastructure projects, but we are also clear that all projects must develop in line with recognised standards on transparency, environmental impact including carbon emissions, social standards and—importantly—debt sustainability. Therefore, there needs to be a sense of transparency on international standards. That was the message that the Chancellor and the Minister for Trade and Export Promotion took to Beijing last month at the belt and road conference.

We have touched on the rules-based system already; it has been the cornerstone of international co-operation and global standards for decades—indeed, since 1945. We recognise that that system is under huge strain. China has been supportive of some of its features, particularly with regard to trade, but less so of others, where it regards itself as not having had an input in the western rules created in the aftermath of 1945. We have been disappointed by its failure to oppose Russia’s annexation of Crimea or to support measures to strengthen the international ban on chemical weapons. We believe that with economic power comes political responsibility, and we want China to give strong and consistent backing for a rules-based international system. We must also accept that the system must adapt and evolve to take account of the fast-changing world.

I crossed out my section on the South China sea, but then the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland brought it up. Let me say this: our position remains unchanged. We do not take sides on issues of sovereignty, but our commitment is to international law, to upholding existing arbitration rulings and to freedom of navigation and overflight. In many ways, the disputes arise because of China’s concern that there could be a question mark over freedom of navigation, given how important the South China sea and the Malacca straits are to its exports.

I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and to the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) that I can touch on the next issue for only a couple of minutes, because it deserves a lot more time. Our constructive relationship with China at a diplomatic level is underpinned by the growing links between our peoples. Many visitors and students come here. We hope those personal links will allow more mutual understanding and bode better for future co-operation and awareness of our values—and Chinese values for those who go there.

Promoting and defending those values is vital, which is why we take a proactive approach to influencing improvements in human rights and rule of law in China. Our concerns are set out year by year in the Foreign and ​Commonwealth Office’s annual report on human rights and democracy, including many concerns about use of the death penalty, restrictions on freedom of expression, association and assembly, freedom of religion or belief, and civil and political freedoms. We continue to raise those at the highest level.

The Prime Minister raised human rights with both President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang during her visit to China in January 2018. The Foreign Secretary raised concerns about the situation in Xinjiang with State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in July 2018, as I did with my opposite number earlier that month. We will continue to lobby on that and the Tibet issue. I have not had enough time to go into as much detail as I should have liked. I hope the hon. Members will excuse me, and I will write to them to set out blow by blow what we are doing and will continue to do in that regard.

It is very sad that we have not had a little more time. This has been a fantastically important debate, and I hope it is the first of many that look at the importance of the geopolitical rise of China and all our concerns with what is happening with the trade war, as my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset pointed out. I thank everyone for their contributions.