Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Adviser to the Conservative Party. Follow Garvan on Twitter
Chinese diplomats appear uniformly excellent. Polished, fluent, articulate, urbane, seemingly immersed in the culture of the countries to which they are posted, in this field at least, Beijing appears to have found the best its 1.3 billion people can provide. They need all the skill they can muster to defend the clumsy foreign policy their masters in the Communist Party insist on executing.
Last week the Telegraph reported that David Cameron's rift with China could cost UK billions. Infrastructure investment, it explained, was at risk, because he had defended democracy, met the Dalai Lama, and, no doubt, because he had bamboozled them into granting the Security Council’s imprimatur for intervention to depose Gaddafi. Nice HS2 line you’ve got planned. Shame if you couldn’t raise the money to build it.
To this it’s possible to reply: nice hoard of excess savings you have there, are you really sure it’s such a good idea to sink it into pieces of paper with pictures of dead American presidents on one side and the all-seeing-eye of God on the other?
China needs projects in which to invest its savings. Notwithstanding Dieter Helm’s alarm about the reliability of the UK infrastructure financing environment (PDF), British infrastructure can still be a useful alternative to the currency of the country whose aircraft carriers the Chinese navy is building enormous missiles to defend against.
There are deals to be done, but we’ll only get the best for Britain if we treat them as commercial transactions, and avoid the ancient autocrats’ ruse that trades advantageous terms for longer-term dependence. This has an old and inglorious history from the pensions James I paid to pliant parliamentarians; the vast subsidy Louis XIV provided his grandson, to the web of corruption in Mubarak’s egypt so masterfully chronicled by Alaa al Aswany and Gazprom’s quest to build a pipeline that would allow it to isolate Poland without cutting off Germany. China’s attempt to play David Cameron off against François Hollande is merely another example of foreign policy as bastard feudalism.
The Prime Minister is viscerally attached to strong Britain. Little is more wounding to him than evidence of his, or his country’s weakness, whether the source is a foreign country, or a British judge ruling against the extradition of Abu Qatada. Those who accuse him of lacking principle should understand that he was acting true to character in standing up to Beijing’s bluster.
Three years in office have taught him that Britain, a medium-sized power, can only do so as part of an alliance of like-minded democracies. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are proving extraordinarily unreliable allies in Syria, funding and arming extremists. Dictatorships lack the institutions to force their governments to observe treaties. Alliances with them are only stable when the regimes are significantly weaker than us. Britain’s no longer powerful enough to enforce those alliances on its own. In the United States this week he and Barack Obama have discussed the transatlantic free trade pact: think of it as a commercial counterpart to NATO that will strengthen the West’s economy and bring its markets closer together.
This is not a call to resist the rise of the BRICS. Quite the contrary. We need to convince emerging democracies, in particular, Brazil and India, that their security is best protected by an alliance of free nations. Institutions like these, not going cap-in-hand to Beijing, provide the soundest guarantee of our security and prosperity. Perhaps David Cameron might like to encourage Barack Obama to make a bipartisan gesture and revive John McCain’s plan for a “League of Democracies.”