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13 Jan 2010 : Column 249WH—continued

It has been said that we need to consider our future in Afghanistan. It is something on which we have the opportunity for a new dialogue with China. Instability in China is seen as a high risk, and Afghanistan and Pakistan could create huge problems for it. So far, China has on the whole sat back and ignored that risk.
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It is time to engage with China, telling it that it has responsibilities and listening to the response in order to try a new kind of dialogue.

China is softening its borders with the spread of its own people-to Russia and Mongolia, and to central Asia, Burma and Laos. I believe that its mantra of non-intervention will gradually soften, but we need to be in dialogue with China to ensure that it happens. We must consult China on international issues, especially in relation to Iran, Darfur, Kosovo, Burma, the middle east and Africa. Let us have a new dialogue.

As the hon. Member for Banbury said, many Chinese students come to this country every year and there is a huge opportunity to develop a mutual understanding. It is a way of forming a new relationship. Let us move forward into that new relationship and take the opportunities to forge closer links with China on a new transnational agenda, which covers issues such as energy, the environment, climate change and overseas investment, in a way that respects Chinese interests. Let us find a new, safer world in which we have nothing to fear because we have found a way of talking and understanding.

10.30 am

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) on securing the debate. Three months ago, we had a debate in this Chamber on the implications for UK policy of relations between China and the west, which was called by the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field). During the debate, we touched on economic and trade issues, security, human rights and Tibet. Rather than going back over those issues, I will try to focus on developments since then. As China is a rising superpower, it is important that we return to the subject of China with some regularity because much has happened over the past three months.

As was mentioned by the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt), we have had the positive news that Google will no longer be censoring its search results in China. Indeed, the lack of media freedom was an issue that we discussed during that last debate. The news from Google is very welcome to those of us who have been incredibly uncomfortable with Google's capitulation to China's demand for restriction of the media and control of what can be viewed on the internet. Such behaviour is in total opposition to the freedom of information that we have come to associate with the internet and, in some ways, to the very principles and mantras that a company such as Google stands for, particularly with its slogan, "Don't be evil". It will be interesting to see how China responds to Google's move, whether Google will be able to continue to operate in China and how the Chinese public, who are used to using Google, will react. We will follow developments on that front very carefully.

However, it has not all been such good news. The three issues on which I should like to focus are the tragic execution of Akmal Shaikh, the Copenhagen conference and the deterioration of the situation in Sudan.

Tragically, on 29 December, Akmal Shaikh was executed. The death penalty itself is abhorrent, as we discussed in a recent debate in this Chamber. The lack of due process and the mental health problems of Akmal Shaikh made his a particularly difficult case.

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The secrecy of the Chinese judicial system was also very evident. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office was not told that the death penalty had been handed down until months after the sentence was passed. Clive Stafford Smith from Reprieve said:

We can only imagine what it is like to be in the shoes of the family in such a situation. As I said, the death penalty in itself is abhorrent enough quite apart from the lack of the proper process and dignity that should go alongside any judicial decision. I understand that Akmal's family have written to the Foreign Secretary to ask for an inquest into his death to be held in the UK, which could provide much needed closure to the grieving family, and I hope that the Government will honour the request.

I understand that both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary made representations to the Chinese calling for clemency. My hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), who followed the case closely, exchanged correspondence with the Government on it and concluded that the Government did everything they could for Akmal Shaikh. Given that they were not successful, will the Minister tell us whether he thinks that a different strategy could have yielded a different outcome so that we can avoid further tragedies?

Turning to Copenhagen, I, like other hon. Members, read the article by Mark Lynas and was shocked by the representations that were given. The image of our Prime Minister, President Obama and Ban Ki-moon sitting in a room while a second-ranking Chinese official ran in and out with the political negotiation equivalent of, "Computer says no" just seems a ridiculous way to conduct negotiations on one of the biggest threats that the world faces.

Two years ago, the Environmental Audit Committee visited China as part of an investigation into the international response to climate change. I was impressed on that visit by how seriously the Chinese were taking the issue, particularly with regard to carbon intensity reduction-if not absolute carbon reduction itself. Their technological advances seemed to be far ahead of the game; the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey called them impressive. Therefore, the Chinese recognise the severe threat posed by climate change, and with a huge number of their population still living in poverty, reliant on melt water from the Himalayas and facing the risk of desertification and other such challenges, one would have expected a different response from them in the international negotiations. Will the Minister tell us what strategy the Government will adopt to bring China back on track? Obviously, securing a transition to a low-carbon world is one of the FCO's key priorities.

Presumably, an investigation is under way into how the problems at Copenhagen could have been averted. Other hon. Members have already asked how it was that we did not recognise the extent of the difficulties that China would pose. I appreciate that such an investigation
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is not just for the UK, because many other countries around the world had a huge stake in ensuring success as well. None the less, we have to ask the questions and find the answers if we are to move forward and reach a meaningful global deal.

On 5 January, the Climate Change Secretary told the House:

I wonder whether the procedural issues should have been resolved in the weeks before the conference. However, it is not clear whether there were actually procedural issues, or whether countries that did not want an agreement put forward the procedural issues as a blocking move. If there truly were procedural issues, they should have been resolved before the conference began.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) has said that just as the UN Security Council sits in permanent session, so, too, should a UN climate council. The Climate Change Secretary has said that such an option should be considered, so I am interested to know whether the FCO will take that suggestion to the UN. It would be interesting to know what strategy the FCO is adopting, given that we are hoping for a global climate deal from the Bonn conference in June.

I know from conversations with FCO officials in posts in various countries that climate change is not just a departmental priority written on a piece of paper, but something to which individuals have a great deal of personal commitment. That is a huge asset that we must use. Moreover, we must assess where our policy is not working, particularly in respect of the Copenhagen conference.

Let me briefly touch on Sudan, particularly in relation to the report that was released last week, "Rescuing the Peace in Southern Sudan", by a coalition of non-governmental organisations. The report described the continuing violence in southern Sudan, with 2,500 people killed in 2009 and 350,000 fleeing their homes. National elections are to be held in April and a referendum in 2011.

Christopher Fraser (in the Chair): Order. May I remind the hon. Lady that the subject of the debate is UK relations with China, and we have limited time for the two further speakers?

Jo Swinson: I am coming to the point that is relevant to this debate but I thank you, Mr. Fraser, for that advice.

Basically, I wanted to ask the Minister for his assessment of the attention the Chinese Government are paying to the situation in southern Sudan, given that China has such important trade relations with that area and that China's involvement is crucial to finding a global resolution to what is going on there, which could end up becoming a very dangerous situation.

I appreciate the opportunity created by the hon. Member for Banbury in securing this debate, which has allowed us to raise a set of issues relating to China, and I look forward to hearing the Minister's response.

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10.40 am

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): It is a pleasure, Mr. Fraser, to be under your chairmanship today. I too congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) on introducing this very timely debate.

As was said by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, we were debating a similar subject in Westminster Hall on 13 October 2009-the implications for UK policy of relations between China and the west. That debate had a somewhat broader remit and it was, of course, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field). In passing, I want to say to the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt), who I do not think was able to attend the debate in October, that quite a bit of it was about the economic and business aspects of the relationship between China and the west.

I do not intend to reprise what I said or to comment on things that were said by others during that debate. As far as this debate is concerned, the crucial point relates to the three specific issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury flagged up and which were important at the end of 2009 and the start of 2010. The first issue was why the Copenhagen climate change discussions failed and who was to blame, if I can put it crudely. The second issue was the conviction and persecution of a number of dissidents in China; that is a continuing issue, but it appears that there have been two or three high-profile cases recently. The third issue, which a number of hon. Members have already commented on, was the execution of Akmal Shaikh.

The crucial point is whether those issues represent a blip in our relations with China. The Foreign Office called in Ambassador Fu Ying for an interview without mao-tai to express our displeasure at what had happened to Akmal Shaikh. There was then an incredibly critical verbal reply from the Chinese. Is that a blip or is there a longer trend?

Having listened to the comments of a number of hon. Members, my personal view is that we have ended up having a rather simplistic debate. The idea that China has never been interested in foreign policy was mentioned. Foreign policy has always been subsumed into domestic policy, but the Chinese have an incredible interest in foreign policy, which has grown not only because of their need to protect their strategic homeland but because of their ability to have access to economic resources.

There was also the idea that, somehow or other, the Chinese have only just become involved in Africa. As most hon. Members know, the Chinese were becoming involved in Africa from the late 1950s and early 1960s.

It seems to me that the key issue in how the UK relates to China is the fact that China has a world view, which is based, as senior Chinese officials keep saying in all the conversations that I have had with them, upon achieving harmony; that is harmony from a Chinese point of view. Consequently, as far as China is concerned there is a raft of issues, most of which relate to Chinese internal affairs, that are not to be discussed. They are certainly not to be discussed in public, and the fact is that individuals or countries that raise them in public, even if they are raised in a moderate way, are likely to produce the grave displeasure of the Chinese Government.

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Furthermore, China has gained access to resources in the world, which they believe is perfectly legitimate. The Chinese would turn to us and say, "Well, after all"-I am using shorthand-"you westerners pillaged the resources of the world from about the 16th century onwards. All we are doing is offering good trade relations with many developing countries, but we do not attach any form of moral politics to that. We are not interested in relating that to human rights in one form or another".

I want to turn the debate around. It is not just a question of the United Kingdom being-quite rightly-sensitive to Chinese culture and history, and of our trade and business relationships with China. The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey is absolutely right; the balance of power has changed in the world. Once again, I do not think there is anybody who does not accept that. The balance of power in the world has changed not only because of the growth and power of China but because of the growth and power of many other countries, including India and Brazil. That complicates matters not just for us but for the Chinese, who I believe are driven by fears of instability. Those fears drive China more than anything else.

As I was saying, it is not just a question of our being sensitive. The Chinese will have to recognise that they must take into account the policies and opinions of many other countries. It will be increasingly difficult for them to operate in a world at a very narrow economic level without realising that if they are to achieve membership of the World Bank and participate in many other things-they are already finding it difficult enough in the United Nations-they will have to take a position on certain things. They will have to be involved in the give and take of politics.

What are we to do about that? First, we should continue to say, very politely, to China that there are certain issues that we regard as important, not only as parliamentarians but as a British Government and Opposition, and that we will continue to raise those issues with the Chinese, not confrontationally but in a way that reflects our values and is not an insult to China.

Secondly, we must recognise that there are actually many areas where China and the United Kingdom have mutual interests. We are an entrepreneurial nation, keen on developing technology and education. Those links are very strong indeed. There are even areas in terms of security where China is co-operating with Britain and the west. Recently, the Chinese navy has been co-operating on anti-piracy patrols in the Indian ocean. That is all to be welcomed.

However, when we talk about the relations between the UK and China, we should not constantly place the emphasis on always trying to consider things from the Chinese perspective. It is equally important that we are very clear what UK national interests are and we should spell those interests out, forcefully but not rudely, to the Chinese.

Actually, I think the Chinese Government realise that. Their formidable ambassador, Madam Fu Ying, also realises it. I emphasise all the things that have been said about her; she has gone out of her way to improve British-Chinese relations, although I would put in a caveat-however good an ambassador is, they have
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riding instructions from their Foreign Office and we should recognise that. Ambassadors are not independent actors.

I welcome the debate. As I said, the real question is whether the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury are a blip or represent a trend. What is the perspective of Foreign Office officials and of the Minister? Although, like many colleagues, I have in the past been critical of the Foreign Office and its officials at times, I do not think those officials are as inadequate, or that the Foreign Office is as poor, as the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey may have been suggesting in some of his comments.

10.48 am

The Minister for Europe (Chris Bryant): I take that last comment by the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) as a ringing endorsement, not of me personally, obviously, but of the Foreign Office.

It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Fraser. Whenever the general election is, it is a shame that you will not still be gracing these corridors afterwards.

This debate is very timely and I congratulate the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) on securing it. He gave us a tantalising mental image of himself and the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk in the 1970s with longer hair. However, I just wonder what their foreign policy was at that time, for example on Pinochet's Chile and particularly on South Africa and apartheid. However, that is obviously not a matter for today's debate.

Mr. Simpson: What was your policy on the Soviet Union?

Chris Bryant: It has been an entirely sensible one all my life.

The hon. Member for Banbury said that he too reads books. I see that some additional books have been brought in for him during the debate. That is a great delight, as I thought that I might have to recite to him some words from Pope-

but obviously he has plenty to keep him reading.

On serious matters, I will say three general things before I come to Members' specific questions. One statistic that exemplifies the issue for all of us is that in 2005, the UK's GDP and China's were roughly equal, at $2.24 trillion for China and $2.25 trillion for the UK. It is almost certain that the final figure for China in 2009 will be double the UK's. With regard to economic might, we must be absolutely clear-sighted about the issue before us. It is compounded by the fact that China, unlike Japan, is a permanent member of the Security Council, so its role in international affairs is significant.

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