Our toothless response to China is embarrassing

5 May 2020

6:20 PM

5 May 2020

6:20 PM

If you have been troubled by the government’s failure to get tough on the country responsible for our present malaise, never fear. The Foreign Office has issued a joint statement with ten EU members warning this regime of ‘grave consequences’ for its ‘standing in the international arena’. That’ll put Beijing in its place. Well, not quite. The statement wasn’t directed at China and the deadly pandemic it has unleashed upon the world. It was another scolding for the Israelis, this time over plans to apply sovereignty to West Bank settlements in line with the Trump peace plan. With 250,000 fatalities and the world economy on a ventilator, it’s about time someone stood up to the real global menace: organic date-growers in the Jordan Valley.

When defence secretary Ben Wallace allows that China might have questions to answer about its handling of Covid-19, it isn’t nothing but it’s still small beer. The government’s diplomatic response to the coronavirus outbreak has been weaker than water. Downing Street’s most punitive sanctions have been reserved for the British people: lockdown, businesses shuttered, fines for unnecessary travel. The only chance of China hearing a harsh word from Whitehall is if a member of the Politburo makes a cheeky late-night wine run to Sainsbury’s.

Wallace is right to say that ‘China needs to be open and transparent’ but what do he and his cabinet colleagues plan to do when China ignores him? The Chinese Communist Party waited almost a week before revealing the emergence of a new strain of coronavirus, deliberately under-reported infection rates, rounded up doctors who attempted to get the truth out, and obstructed international research into the pandemic. Since then it has pursued a campaign of misinformation about the origins of the virus, taunted the United States with a snide viral video, and even threatened Australia with a boycott after the Morrison government backed calls for an independent inquiry. Western liberals have behaved exactly as Beijing expected: fretting over the racial implications of calling a virus from China a Chinese virus. Robert Frost said a liberal was ‘a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel’. Today’s liberals refuse to acknowledge there is a quarrel.

The Daily Telegraph (Australia) obtained a Five Eyes intelligence dossier which questions whether Covid-19 began life in a Wuhan laboratory rather than the wet market. Whatever the origins of the virus, as the dossier accounts, China committed an ‘assault on international transparency’ by the ‘disappearing’ of scientists and ‘bleaching of wildlife market stalls’ to further a ‘deadly denial of human-to-human transmission’. All of this subterfuge, the document concludes, was to the ‘endangerment of other countries’. In the UK alone, that endangerment has taken the form of 190,000 infections and more than 28,000 fatalities.

No country with a skerrick of self-respect can allow this behaviour to go unpunished. I have already suggested some punitive measures designed to wound the regime’s pride without harming the Chinese people: cancel the Huawei deal; pass a Magnitsky-style Act targeting senior CPC figures; champion the Uyghurs at every opportunity (e.g. rename the London street that houses the Chinese embassy after a Uyghur political prisoner); and recognise Taiwan as an independent nation. All I would add, upon reflection, is this: grant British citizenship to Hong Kongers born before 1 July 1997, their children and grandchildren. Even if just a fraction of Hong Kong’s residents took up the opportunity, every one would be a small humiliation for the dictatorship. Given the government’s softly-softly approach, we probably shouldn’t get our hopes up for anything beyond Huawei cancellation, and even that’s far from guaranteed. Even absent the ministerial gumption to impose sanctions on Beijing, there will have to be a strategic rethink of our relationship with the People’s Republic. If this is how it behaves in a US-led world order, it is unlikely to be any more benevolent as a rival (or replacement) superpower.

While abandoning global free trade and economic interdependence would prove a costly mistake, it would be just as foolish to remain in hock to a regime that, in the most generous reading of events, caused thousands of avoidable British deaths to save face. However, reshoring and rebuilding key manufacturing sectors is only a partial solution. We need to trade but our trading priorities are subject to political and security considerations. China is our second-largest trading partner while India is our sixth. It would be in the UK’s interests to reverse that ordering. Of course, to make a change like that you need a government with a bit of backbone and it’s not at all clear that we have one.

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