A cautious embrace: defending democracy in an age of autocracies Contents


1.For the purposes of this inquiry, and to ensure a meaningful examination of the UK’s foreign policy regarding autocracies, we define autocratic states as those in which governments gain or hold power by means other than democratic elections that meet international standards. The Government has acknowledged that autocracies pose a challenge to the rules-based international system:1 the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) describes autocracies’ efforts “to change the rules, norms, and values on which the current system is based.”2 In February 2019, we launched an inquiry into the FCO’s policy towards autocracies.3 We sought to assess the Government’s response to challenges that autocratic states pose to the rules-based international order, and in particular the role of the FCO. This inquiry grew out of our more specific investigation of the UK’s China policy, which we concluded earlier this year.4

2.We took oral evidence over three sessions between June and October. In addition to FCO ministers, we took evidence from human rights activists from China and Russia, experts and academics, and stakeholders from UK and US universities involved in safeguarding academic freedom.5 This inquiry has been curtailed because of the dissolution of Parliament in November 2019. It nonetheless builds on other inquiries in this Parliament relating to autocracies, such as those on global media freedom and the use of sanctions.6

3.This report focuses on three policy areas: autocracies’ influence on academic freedom; the use of sanctions against autocracies; and the UK’s cooperation with other democracies in responding to autocracies. It is necessary for the Government to engage with autocracies, for reasons of security, trade and tackling issues such as climate change and modern slavery. We concentrate in particular on Russia and China. Our evidence suggests that both have engaged in overt and covert interference in the affairs of the UK and its partners. The two take different approaches to the rules-based system: Russia has been accused of actively working to undermine the system,7 whilst China largely works within the system, but aims to change it to suit its own goals, which may be very different from those of the UK.8 Our evidence cited as examples Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, the repression of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, the chemical attack in Salisbury in 2018, and attempts at interference in elections within democracies.9

1 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (AFP0022), paras 7–10

2 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (AFP0022), paras 7–10

3 Foreign Affairs Committee, ‘Autocracies and UK Foreign Policy examined’, accessed 30 October 2019

4 Foreign Affairs Committee, Sixteenth Report of Session 2017–19, China and the Rules-Based International System, HC 612

5 A full list of the written and oral evidence published by the Committee is available at the back of this report, and also on the Committee’s webpage for the inquiry into autocracies and UK foreign policy. We are grateful to all who gave us evidence.

6 Foreign Affairs Committee, Seventeenth Report of Session 2017–19, Fragmented and Incoherent: the UK’s sanctions policy, HC 1703; Foreign Affairs Committee, Twenty-first Report of Session 2017–19, “Media freedom is under attack”: The FCO’s defence of liberty, HC 1920

7 Foreign Affairs Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2017−19, Moscow’s Gold: Russian corruption in the UK, para 20

8 Foreign Affairs Committee, Sixteenth Report of Session 2017–19, China and the Rules-Based International System, HC 612, para 9–12
As Dr Kobayashi told us, China has gone from being a “silent watcher … moving on to participating, and finally to revising and reforming” the rules-based international system.

9 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (AFP0022), para 30; The Rights Practice (AFP0027), para 27; Dr Pete Duncan (AFP0031), para 10–11

Published: 5 November 2019