Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260-279)


13 JUNE 2006

  Q260  Chairman: Human Rights Watch probably.

  Margaret Beckett: Yes, I think it was, and it was not quite clear to me because they seemed to be saying this is insufficiently effective and I almost got the impression they were saying "so don't do it", but I am pretty confident that if we were not doing anything they would be urging us to do something. I think there is always a difficult balance to strike in these quite delicate areas, but I can assure you that if we thought it was a complete waste of time we would probably stop doing it.

  Q261  Chairman: Do you think there is a case for doing more public action on this rather than behind-the-scenes action?

  Margaret Beckett: Of course there is a case, there is always a case. Whether it would be more beneficial is quite another matter and, as I said to Ken Purchase—and I have felt perhaps that I should stop saying this because I have said it on a number of occasions in my political life and I am not sure it has always helped me and perhaps now I should stop saying it—it has always been my view that you try to do what is most effective, and if that disappoints people who wish to see you do the thing in a different way but you think you are actually getting a better result, then you should bite the bullet and put up with it.

  Chairman: We are going to move on to Tibet. Richard?

  Q262  Richard Younger-Ross: It is said that the Chinese are subsuming the Tibetan culture and the Tibetan culture is becoming merely a tourist attraction rather than a way of life. Could you explain your concerns about the human rights abuses in Tibet and whether you believe that the Chinese are still intent on bringing more Han Chinese into the country so that the Tibet-ness of Tibet is eventually eliminated altogether?

  Margaret Beckett: We do have concerns, as you would expect, about the position in Tibet and we raise those concerns regularly with the Chinese Government and will continue to look for opportunities to do so. As I said before, one of the things that we are trying to do in terms of positive engagement on the ground is encouraging some project work to directly improve the situation of some of the Tibetan people. We are also seeking to use what I think is a degree of goodwill and mutual confidence that we are gradually building up with the Chinese Government to encourage political dialogue and try to encourage from all quarters an approach of trying to identify a greater degree of common ground so that there can be a more peaceful approach and peaceful settlement in the area of Tibet. I appreciate that is perhaps quite a tall order but that is certainly our approach. I know there has been the involvement of the Han Chinese in Tibet but I am not sighted on what we think the pace of that is now or is likely to be. Is that one for you, Denis?

  Mr Keefe: It is certainly something that is continuing and of course the Chinese Government's perspective on it is that they are promoting the economic development of Tibet by doing things like building a railway to Tibet and investing there. Equally it is true, quite clearly, that it does have social effects and I think it is important to go on expressing, as we do through the dialogue and through other contacts, our concerns about the things that are happening in Tibet that we do not like the look of. It is not a straightforward issue in the sense that it is entirely cultural or entirely social. It is very much bound up with the economics of Tibet.

  Q263  Richard Younger-Ross: The economics is used as the reason for the improvements. The side effects of that I think are fairly clear and you have referred to them. One of the side effects which has not been referred to very much in the past is the environmental damage and the potential environmental threat that the development of Tibet may pose, which is a very fragile environment. From your previous post you will be well aware of a number of these issues. What concerns do you have or does your Department have on water extraction and economic development and do you believe that poses a real risk to the seven major river sources in South East Asia?

  Margaret Beckett: There is obviously a considerable concern about environmental damage, not just in Tibet but across that whole part of the world. I think one thing that I perhaps ought to say, and the Committee perhaps picked up when you were involved in your discussions, is that in recent years in particular the Chinese government has shown a very welcome and indeed a more thorough recognition of some of these dangers and the importance of some of these issues than perhaps many others in the developing world. I take a small amount of credit for my previous Department because, for example, Defra has now embarked on the second phase of its work with the Chinese Department of Agriculture assessing, for example, the most likely impacts of climate change on Chinese agriculture. The reason that the Chinese Government has become engaged in this work is because of their own recognition of how substantial these issues are for the whole length and breadth of China, and that includes in Tibet. This may be an area where there are more fragile eco-systems but there is a great concern across China. One of the things that I think is a huge challenge and a recognised challenge for the Chinese Government is how to get sustainable development and not just development. Of course, the other great challenge and great difficulty for them, which everybody has to do everything they can to help support and work with the Government of China, is it is one thing to get that recognition, as I think increasingly they have at central level but, China being such a vast place, to follow it through locally is not always so easy. So I think there is a real recognition of those challenges and of those potential dangers. From my perspective, as someone who has been engaged on environmental issues for the last five years, China is ahead of the game when it comes to a lot of other states who could have similar problems but are not yet recognising them. I am very impressed by what I have seen of the Chinese Government's record and their aspirations in this respect.

  Q264  Mr Keetch: There is a long way to go in Tibet.

  Margaret Beckett: A very long way to go across China, a long way with pollution problems, a long way with biodiversity problems of course, but recognising the problem is the first and most important step.

  Q265  Chairman: Thank you very much. We are going to move on to some questions on Chinese foreign policy. Can I begin by asking you about China's role in the United Nations system. Do you see the economic strength of China being reflected now in a much more assertive role within the UN system?

  Margaret Beckett: Perhaps not fully. I think I would say that China tends to be a quiet and sometimes a silent power house rather than a vocal one at present. I think China's economic importance is increasingly recognised, and of course China is a powerful player and fully understands and recognises that. I think, however, based on quite a short direct experience of this, that China is not yet using her economic power as fully as she could. Whether the Committee would wish to see her use it more fully is another matter.

  Q266  Chairman: You see it more as protecting its interests in the world rather than asserting itself in a global way?

  Margaret Beckett: I think China is extremely conscious that although they are a major economic power and will become more so in the future, they are also still in many ways a developing country and they retain what one might consider to be quite an admirable fellow feeling for and supportive attitude towards the developing countries as a whole. There are many international fora in which China is part of that, in environment, for example, it is the G77 and China, and there are many ways in which China retains those links and retains some of that perspective and perhaps in that sense is more inclined to see herself as one of the players who has considerable weight among this group rather than saying, "Okay, we have developed so much, we are leaving you lot behind, and we must speak out just for ourselves."

  Q267  Chairman: China has got permanent membership of the Security Council—

  Margaret Beckett: Indeed.

  Chairman: And in that position has a rather important role over some of the international crises that we are dealing with it at the moment. I will bring Mr Mackinlay in on this.

  Q268  Andrew Mackinlay: Really I will just mention the word Iran. If you could give us your view on what you understand to be the People's Republic of China's policy as regards Iran. It clearly has had some recent summitry anyway but it did not seem to me that they had as much interest in seeing a non-nuclear weaponised Iran as we do, and although there is not conflict there does seem to be a slightly different read on how we could and should approach this. In a way I suppose: discuss, if you would not mind?

  Margaret Beckett: I know you will understand and I think the Committee will understand if I approach this at this moment in time with considerable caution because it was only yesterday that the meeting took place in Iran where proposals were put before the Government of Iran and they still have to consider them. What I would say is that there is actually a very strong coherence of understanding about the benefits of dealing with the issues which arise in Iran through diplomatic means and of the potential disadvantages of all of that going wrong. It is understandable that it should be so but when we met in New York at the beginning of May and there was not an immediate statement, I think some people assumed that there was a greater divergence of view than in fact there was. There is a very considerable amount of common ground, agreement, understanding and basic concern among the participants in that dialogue, the P5 and Germany. That is the first thing I would say. Second, coming from that common analysis and concern, there is a passionate desire to find a way out of this through diplomatic means and a way out which can be to everybody's benefit. The reason that we did not make any statements in New York was because people wanted to do more work on being able to put something of greater substance to the Iranian Government and that work has proceeded in the interim and that then led to the discussions that we had in Vienna. In Vienna, again there was acceptance from all of the countries there that we should be offering to the Iranian people and the Iranian Government something which was mutually beneficial, that we should make plain our shared concern and our shared wish to resolve this problem as an international community but our shared understanding that the concerns of the IAEA Board were concerns that everyone shared. I do not really want to go any further than that but it was a deliberate choice and decision that we made—and I chaired the meeting, as you perhaps know—a united statement that I as the chair read out. It was a very short statement that we would not explain the content to anybody before it had been shared with the Government of Iran and we had given them a breathing space to think about it, to consider it, and to think about their response, and that we would do everything that we could to avoid jeopardising the prospects of agreement because of that absolutely shared basis of concern and interest.

  Chairman: I am now going to switch to some other difficult international issues. Sir John Stanley?

  Q269  Sir John Stanley: Foreign Secretary, on this visit, as on previous visits to China, the Committee was left in no doubt whatever of the unwavering, unshakeable, iron determination of the People's Republic to reacquire Taiwan. Indeed, that appeared to be the highest foreign policy priority of the PRC. Can you tell us what steps the British Government will take to ensure that the People's Republic are in no doubt that an exercising of a military option to reacquire Taiwan would have unacceptable consequences for China?

  Margaret Beckett: As you know, we ourselves do not recognise the Government of Taiwan but we have always taken every opportunity we can to encourage any difficulties and divisions that arise to be approached in and settled in a peaceful manner. We have always, whenever we have had any bilateral discussions with China in which these issues have come up, taken the opportunity to deliver constructive messages and tried to encourage greater confidence-building and greater recognition I believe that when the Committee was in Taiwan you were given information about the nature and depth of the business links and so on that exist between Taiwan and mainland China. That is certainly something (a) we would encourage and (b) we would encourage the recognition of how much mutual interest/shared interest there is and how essential it is that this is an issue that is dealt with peacefully and if difficulties arise those difficulties are resolved peacefully.

  Q270  Sir John Stanley: Foreign Secretary, would you agree that with the very, very clear, indeed overwhelming evidence of ever-increasing Chinese military capability, it is becoming more imperative that our country, I am sure in conjunction with the United States, takes very positive steps to reinforce the message which you have just conveyed to the Committee that this issue has to be resolved peacefully and that China must not think it can exercise a military option without unacceptable cost to itself?

  Margaret Beckett: I think that the Government of China understands very well that military options tend to involve costs and that a peaceful resolution of problems and difficulties and misunderstandings is something which is always to be desired and to be sought. I take your point about sometimes changing dispositions of the military in China but, as I say, the notion of peaceful involvement and of continued engagement is something which we have always pushed, will always push, and which we believe is understood.

  Q271  Sir John Stanley: Can I turn to an adjacent difficult area but one where our interests and hopefully the interests of the PRC are very much aligned, which is the Korean Peninsula. I do of course appreciate fully that we are not a member of the Six Party talks but we do share the concern of at least five out of the six parties that the DPRK should not go down the route of building a nuclear WMD capability. Can you tell us what steps the British Government will be doing to try to see whether we can get a very proactive role played by the PRC in trying to persuade Chairman Kim Jong-il and the DPRK that they must abandon any ambitions to have nuclear weapons?

  Margaret Beckett: Again, with regard to our own involvement with the DPRK this is something where we try to carry out practical projects and activity on the ground which we think can be beneficial to the people of that country but also, as you say, although we are not one of the six parties we do do everything we can to try to encourage the DPRK back to the table and we do, as I think do all other players, encourage the People's Republic of China to do what they can to help to bring Korea back to the table. Of course, one of the examples which we would tend to urge in this sphere is the example of Libya where actually they have stepped back from a role that they played some years ago, have disarmed, are beginning to demilitarise, and are seeing economic and social reward in that regard. So I think that is one of the important things, that we do encourage recognition of that in Korea and we encourage the Chinese Government to remind Korea that actually others have travelled that road before and to better effect.

  Q272  Mr Keetch: On economic reform in North Korea, clearly there is a role for Britain and many other countries to support economic development and I know that in the past the Foreign Office has sponsored some work by the University of Warwick, for example, on an educational programme between 1999 and 2002 to provide assistance in terms of changes in agriculture or whatever. Do you think there is a role there for Britain, if not to be one of the big players on the nuclear issue certainly to be encouraging the North Koreans to have economic and maybe political reform to try and ease what is undoubtedly a massive humanitarian problem on the ground in North Korea?

  Margaret Beckett: We do that to a certain extent although, because of the concerns about the DPRK's nuclear programme, we have, I am afraid, suspended active trade promotion and technical assistance now, but we do continue to try to develop some of these projects. For example, we fund English language training and university and some other grass roots projects and so on, and we also encourage our other international partners, particularly South Korea as well as China, to use their own economic links with North Korea to try to foster this kind of engagement, but it is rather difficult at the present time.

  Q273  Mr Purchase: Could we talk about the role of the WTO and the Chinese counterfeiting industry at two levels; the massive increase in Chinese exports which are now valued at something like £760 billion per annum, the third biggest exporter in the world, but some of it based upon these very cheap counterfeits that the Chinese seem to excel at? What can we do? Other countries are already considering tariff barriers against the interests of world trade development, but what can we do against this flood of amazingly cheap imports?

  Margaret Beckett: There are two slightly different issues there, if I may say so. On the one hand there is the issue of the WTO trade expansion, foreign trade rules and so on, and on the other there is this very difficult issue of IPR and counterfeiting. It goes back, I think, to something I said earlier in response to a question at this end of the table. It is clear that China takes the concerns about this issue of counterfeiting, IPR and so on a great deal more seriously than people have sometimes argued that it did in the past and is showing every sign of recognising the mutual value of abiding by WTO rules and getting the right kind of governance in place for a country that continues to want substantial investment. I think the willingness is increasingly there but the practicalities remain quite difficult, especially, as I said earlier on, at local level. I think it is just something that we have to encourage and try to work with and assist China in tackling, and also perhaps it is incumbent on all China's trading partners to look at whether there is more that we can do at the receiving end.

  Q274  Mr Purchase: Can I just put to you very briefly that often the development costs involved, maybe in pharmaceuticals but sometimes in scientific development too, are huge and can only be recovered by sales over a very long period of time? This appears to me extremely damaging. Have you anything in mind immediately to deal with or tackle this particular problem, because it is surely going to lead to disinvestment in intellectual property and real development?

  Margaret Beckett: I do not have any magic wand, I have to confess. As I say, it is my perception that this is something that is improving. When you think of the huge investment that China is making in science, engineering, the bases for invention and innovation, it seems to me self-evident that it is going to become increasingly in China's own interests to see these agreements and understandings observed and that will make a difference, but I am not saying that it will be easy for the Chinese Government to tackle this if only they have the will. It is not easy; it is not easy at all. I do not claim that I have the answer at this moment in time but I do think there is a greater recognition of the mutual benefits of observing and developing some of these rules and that recognition is strengthened in China itself. I do not know if there is anything Mr Wood can add to that.

  Mr Wood: Within the scope of our fairly modest resources we do have some functional projects running with the Chinese to help to codify standards and build a raised consciousness of the need for intellectual property protection. The problem that we identify the Chinese have is really a problem of law enforcement and implementation. They have the political will, they have set the right legal and regulatory frameworks, or are trying to do so, and increasingly the intellectual property infringement problems they have affect Chinese companies and interests. The Chinese want to tackle this themselves and in a modest way we are trying to help them and things are moving in the right direction, as the Foreign Secretary says.

  Mr Keefe: The progress the Chinese have made in their own internal systems for dealing with intellectual property issues are increasingly being exploited by Chinese companies themselves who can see that their own interests are damaged. It is very interesting that that is how it is developing.

  Q275  Mr Heathcoat-Amory: Do you think that China's voracious appetite for raw materials—oil, minerals and so on—is now having a seriously distorting effect on the struggle for human rights in the world in that China seems to want to do business with any regime, however autocratic, in order to secure its supply of raw materials, not just in the developing world but also in big countries like Iran which we discussed earlier? Surely the one big factor is that, bluntly, Iran can provide a lot of things that China wants so China is not going to make life very difficult for the Iranian Government? Is this now having a very detrimental effect all round the world?

  Margaret Beckett: But, as I said a moment ago in answer to Mr Mackinlay's question, China does not only share concern about the potentially damaging effect of not being able to reach agreement with Iran about a future plan but also in sharing that concern is prepared to engage in a discussion that we had in Vienna, so it is not a lost cause, if I can put it like that. Secondly, while I take your point completely, it is inevitable perhaps that there will be this creative tension for an economy that is growing and needs to grow, as China's is, to be looking short term to how they obtain resources, and it is important for part of our dialogue with them to encourage them to think about what is sustainable in the longer term and what is the nature of the relationships that they will need to build across a wider world community. Of course, as I am sure the committee is very well aware, an extremely long-standing principle of the Chinese regime, and I suppose we are going back decades if not more, is a sort of non-intervention in other countries' affairs. That has always been their principle and so it is not altogether surprising that it is not changing as they are looking to answer these wider difficulties and to obtain resources. Obviously, again, in terms of our dialogue and our engagement with China, we do try to encourage on the one hand the notion that it is not just a matter of signing a contract in the short term—how can you sustainably and reliably build up relationships across the world and give reasonably convincing access to resources over the long term—but also what does that mean in terms of overall relationships between different countries and different societies, and to encourage them, whether it is with Burma (and, as I say, we have dealt in a sense with the issue of Iran) or others of those with whom China trades, to recognise that we see it as very much in their long term interests to take account of some of these issues and concerns and, if they wish to hold by the principle of non-interference that is one thing but they must recognise some of the problems. If we take a different example, there are countries with whom China has continued to maintain a relationship, for example, Zimbabwe, where the difficulties that are taking place in Zimbabwe will have an effect on their capacity to be a reliable partner in the future, and these things do work together. It is not just a matter of it not being of importance to a trading partner.

  Q276  Chairman: Can we move back and follow up a question you answered from Sir John Stanley earlier? The whole East Asia region has historically come under a kind of American security arrangement and the rise of China potentially poses a challenge to that. What threat would instability in that region cause to our national interests in the UK and is there anything we can do to assist the development of greater stability of the structures and relationships in that region?

  Margaret Beckett: Yes, I think there is. One of the impacts of globalisation about which we all talk so much nowadays is that your problem is my problem and so great instability in any part of the world is a threat to other parts of the world; I do not think there is any question about that. Is there anything we can do to assist? Yes, I think there is. In all of these areas we have relationships of varying strength and experience. One of the things that we try to do is build good relationships, obviously, with all those with whom we interact but also encourage them to build relationships with each other. As you may have noticed, in recent years we, the UK (and we have encouraged this in the EU) have set up strategic dialogues with a number of emergent major players in the world scene in order precisely to encourage that kind of recognition of mutual concern, mutual dangers and difficulties and exploration between people who might otherwise be at odds with and stand aloof from each other of how they can build better relationships. I have viewed the strategic dialogues being set up. I have not actually set up any of them yet myself but my understanding is that that is the thinking behind some of those approaches, instead of waiting until something goes wrong, precisely to try and head off at the pass what are clearly potential areas of difficulty.

  Q277  Mr Keetch: Can I talk specifically, Foreign Secretary, about Sino-American relations because they are obviously vital not just for the region, frankly, but also for the entire globe? They have changed slightly over the years. When the current administration took over they started referring to China as a strategic competitor rather than a strategic partner and certainly I suppose the crash of the American EP-3 spy plane in April 2001 did not help those relations, but largely since 9/11 the United States obviously understand the focus on the so-called war against terrorism. China has been supportive of that and has been broadly co-operative in it. Could you say a word on that and could you also say a word on whether you think there is any role for Britain to play here, rather than being, as I say, a strategic competitor, to try and encourage the view in the United States that China could be an incredibly invaluable partner for them, not least, it must be said, of course, because of the huge potential business opportunities that an emerging China would provide for the United States?

  Margaret Beckett: I do not think there is any doubt that there is tremendous potential for good relationships between China and the US, and indeed that is recognised on both sides. I cannot remember—when was Bob Zoellick's speech?

  Q278  Mr Keetch: September 2005; I was going to come to that.

  Margaret Beckett: I thought his speech was an important signal, which was warm towards China and was in a sense encouraging China, I felt. This goes back to the question the Chairman asked me, if I recall correctly, about the role China plays in the UN and encouraging China to take that greater responsibility to which its growing power gives it access and to play to some degree a greater role on the world stage, and I think that is fully recognised. However, the other thing that is happening, and it is a matter for the American administration but I think domestically in the United States, as elsewhere in the world, is recognition that China's existing and potential economic power is leading to anxiety about competitiveness and there is a terrible danger as I would see it of it helping to fuel the drive towards protectionism. One of the reasons why I am extremely anxious about the prospects for the Doha Round is that failure of the Doha Round could open up a kind of domino effect, a flood back into protectionism which I do not believe would be in the interests of this country or the wider world.

  Q279  Mr Purchase: My next question is still on Sino-American relations but thinking of the effect on Britain. You will know that in the post-war period the growth of the German economy and the subsequent massive under-valuation of the German mark led to serious problems in Britain of under-investment and the rest is history. A very similar situation appears to be developing in China with the growth of the economy and the under-valuation of the currency and America becoming very concerned about, as we have already mentioned, intellectual property but on top of that oil markets and commodities. Do we have the same concerns in Britain that the Americans have about these matters related to the growth and valuation of currencies?

  Margaret Beckett: It would probably be right to say that we have the same concerns in the sense that we recognise the dangers that America sees, but we hope and believe that we can work co-operatively with China to avoid them. It is not in China's interests to destabilise the world economy any more than it is in anybody else's. The yuan has been revalued recently, has it not, which I recall from some years ago there was discussion about. The Chinese were very reluctant for a long time to see any such moves but they have begun to contemplate it so I think there is a growing recognition of mutual interests there and a growing understanding of looking at the effects of what seems to be helpful in the short term on one's longer term trading and business relationships.

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