The view of consecutive Conservative British governments, held until only recently, that China was a “lucrative market” and a source of foreign investment was “superficial,” “never sufficient,” and “unlikely to be sustainable,” Mr Downer said. And it had let down Britain’s allies.
“Worse, it indicated that the UK was no longer a global geopolitical player, just a trading nation,” he said.
“Nor was it a policy that was appropriate for a country that is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and therefore must carry an unusually heavy obligation to uphold the rules-based international system,” Mr Downer said.
“Britain’s strength in the world is its network of friends and allies. A policy towards a rising China which offered nothing more than pecuniary ambition was never going to impress British allies,” Mr Downer said.
Mr Downer welcomed the recent shift in attitude from Westminster that has seen Britain pledge to phase out Huawei equipment from its 5G networks, an offer of citizenship to Britain National Overseas passport holders in Hong Kong and support for Australia’s call for an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
He set out three ambitions for the UK’s policy on China.
The first was British support for the Quad – comprising Australia, the United States, India and Japan – to underpin stability in the Indo Pacific and provide an “appropriate power balance” to discourage China from “adventurism” and making claims over contested areas using force.
“The UK needs to engage heavily with these countries providing them with diplomatic support and every so often – and within the UK’s capabilities – support from the armed forces through joint exercises and ship visits,” Mr Downer said.
These include the formation of the D10 – a grouping of 10 democracies, limiting Chinese investment in critical infrastructure, sanctioning Chinese officials over human rights abuses, providing support and legal aid to British National Overseas Holders in Hong Kong, measures to ensure slave labour is not used in supply lines, guidelines to govern co-operation between universities and foreign governments, and mandatory reporting for Chinese companies involved in joint ventures with British companies to disclose information about links with the Chinese government and military.
Sam Armstrong, an adviser to the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China – the global cross-party network of politicians campaigning for a more robust response to China – said: “Alexander Downer is right, the time for business as usual with China is over.”
“His comments will embolden the truly cross-party, international response to China that is emerging in politics across the globe.”
Since former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith started IPAC in June, its membership has swelled from 19 MPs representing nine legislatures to more than 200 MPs representing 19 parliaments.
Duncan Smith has already warned Johnson’s government against pursuing a second nuclear plant financed, in part, by China.
Latika Bourke is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based in London.