20 October 2021
Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown debates the impact of the AUKUS pact on Anglo-Chinese relations

Speaking in a debate on the impact of the AUKUS pact on Anglo-Chinese relations, Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown says that while we want to stand up to China, we also need to maintain a dialogue; that its human rights activities are unacceptable; and that we should start to reduce our reliance on Chinese investment.

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con)

Thank you, Mr Davies, for allowing me to take part in this debate. I would like to thank the Minister; she and I have not always agreed on everything, but we have moved on, and I am glad to see her here. I give sincere congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski); his was one of the highest-quality speeches that I have heard in this Chamber. This is an incredibly important debate, and I am sorry that it is so thinly attended.

You have given me about six minutes, Mr Davies, so I will motor on, but I want to make one or two important points that were not in my speech, but that arise from what my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham said. Perhaps the most important thing he said was that now that we have freed ourselves from the straitjacket of European Union trading arrangements, we need to participate fully in the Indo-Pacific tilt and its trading arrangements. He is quite right that it is one of the fastest-growing regions in the world. It is certainly growing much faster than the European Union, which is, if anything, retrenching in terms of percentage of world GDP; he is 100% right on that. I hope we succeed in our CPTPP negotiations. He is also 100% right to talk about naval bases. Ironically, that is exactly what the Chinese are doing; they are expanding their naval bases those in Sri Lanka and Djibouti being just two examples. China is doing exactly what he urges us to do. At Diego Garcia and Guam there are two very significant American bases, which will be maintained at full strength.

My hon. Friend is also right to say that we should reduce our dependency on Chinese investment in this country. Unprecedentedly in my 29-year parliamentary career, I have called for an urgent question. It is on the Chinese purchase of Newport Wafer Fab. It makes our highly sophisticated microchips, which are extremely difficult to make; we have some of the world’s best technology, and we are selling it to the Chinese. These microchips are the basis of every piece of electronic equipment. It was crazy to allow this, and I still appeal to the Minister to look at this again, because it was not very sensible.

I have been actively engaged with members of the Chinese Government at the most senior levels for the last 20 years or so. I am also deputy chairman of the all-party parliamentary China group, so I can claim to have some insight into the Chinese psychology. What one really needs to look into is: what is the psychology driving China when it takes an action? How will it react to this trilateral security pact? Since 2010, the relationship between the UK and China has been pragmatic and often mutually beneficial. For example, the UK was the first western nation to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. It is still one of the largest foreign countries trading renminbi. I think we have to be pragmatic. I do not think we should cut off our trade with China; I just think we should diversify it.

I totally agree with Members who have mentioned the serious human rights violations in China, which we in the UK abhor and rightly express our concerns about directly with China. That does not mean that we should not be friends with the Chinese on a people-to-people level; nor should it prevent our Governments from having responsible dialogue. China is too big and strategically important not to engage with. The message I want to leave this House with is that if we stop engaging with China, we stop having any influence with it. It is absolutely essential to engage, and we have done throughout history. We have engaged with people whom we do not like and do not approve of. We do not approve of their human rights violations, but we still engage with them. That is what we ought to be doing with the Chinese.

The People’s Republic is extremely strategic and long-term in its thinking—as my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham said, it has a 1,000-year strategy. When it sets out to achieve something, it invariably does. I would like my hon. Friend to focus on this line: while it might protest about AUKUS publicly, privately it will respect the fact that the west is standing up to its imperial ambitions. There is no doubt that China wants to become the dominant superpower in the world in regards to political, economic and military influence. We must accept that, but that does not mean we should stop dealing with it. We need to find a sensible way to work with China.

The Chinese are spending huge amounts of money on upgrading their submarine, space and ballistic missile capabilities. According to the Financial Times, in August they tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile, apparently to the surprise of the US and western intelligence. Why it was a surprise, I do not know, because we have known for several years that they have been trying to develop these weapons. Such demonstrations show the advanced capabilities of China’s modernised military.

We have witnessed the deterioration in Australian-Chinese relations and the bullying attitude to Australia over trade, which, of course, has spurred Australia on to spend a significant amount of its GDP upgrading its submarine capability to a nuclear-powered capability, so that it can spend more time at sea, hopefully undetected.

I fully welcome the AUKUS pact. I think it is the right thing to do. Hopefully, the UK as well as the US will take part in the production and technology of those submarines. AUKUS has been, to many, a bold step. We are pushing our global Britain credentials with a bigger role in the Indo-Pacific region. Importantly, as my hon. Friend says, we are working closely with our allies—something talked about in the integrated review. He mentioned the number of countries in the CPTPP partnership. One important country he did not mention, and which I would like to mention on the record, is South Korea. We have a trading agreement, and a good relationship, with it. It is one of those countries north of the South China sea that is also troubled by Chinese incursion.

There are still many areas that require productive and sensible China-Anglo dialogue. COP26 is an important milestone for the future of the UK’s climate change agenda and ambition. The UK produces around 1.1% of the world’s emissions, whereas China emits around 28% and accounts for almost two thirds of the growth in emissions since 2000. Clearly, we can set a good example to other countries to decarbonise more quickly and make a real difference to climate change, but we need alliances with other countries, so that they can do the same. We need China to come on board with that agenda. Any fallout over AUKUS will have consequences for other matters, as I have demonstrated with COP26, but I would like to think that it is of benefit to both the UK and China to continue with a constructive dialogue.

While we will always have our differences, and I do not hesitate to articulate our views vociferously to the Chinese when I talk to them, particularly over human rights, overall it is in both sides’ interests to have a realistic but frank dialogue in the future. The idea of breaking off all dialogue with China, as some would advocate, is simply cutting off our nose to spite our face. Worse still, as I have said, we would lose the chance to influence Chinese thinking on issues such as climate change.

This has been an important debate. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will be able to take something from it: that while we want to stand up to China, we want to have a dialogue with it; that its human rights activities are unacceptable; and that we should start to reduce our reliance on Chinese investment.


Earlier in the same debate

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown 

May I congratulate my hon. Friend on an outstanding speech? Indeed, it is one of the most outstanding speeches that I have heard in this Chamber in my time in Parliament. I will just inform my hon. Friend and the House that when I was a shadow Foreign Office Minister I studied the issue of the Diego Garcian people. When we gave Mauritius independence, they were fully compensated—the families were fully compensated. The wise ones invested and now have houses; the unwise ones spent all the money. There was then a further round of compensation, because it was deemed that they had not been given enough, so they have been fully compensated for any familial ties that they might have had to Diego Garcia.

Daniel Kawczynski 

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Not surprisingly, I completely concur with everything he has just stated. I would also say to him that in addition to the treaty—the Minister will know about this—we gave Mauritius £4 million as final settlement. Hon. Members will remember how much £4 million was in 1965. Mauritius took that money. Now, 50 years on, Mauritius is trying to overturn—

Geraint Davies (in the Chair)

Order. Please can we bring it back to AUKUS? Also, we will have to begin to time-limit the few people we have to speak.

Daniel Kawczynski 

Sorry, forgive me—I had to get in the British Indian Ocean Territory, because I would argue that it is a critical part of the AUKUS strategy.