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Damian Green is a former First Secretary of State, Chair of the One Nation Caucus, and is MP for Ashford.

We are only in the early miles of this marathon emergency but already we can see some of the long-term choices that will face governments when it is over.

The irritation of the British Government with its Chinese counterpart, both for the delay in informing international bodies of the arrival of coronavirus and for its slightly dubious attitude to statistics, has been obvious in recent days.

Whatever your view of how well any Western government is handling the crisis it is clear that a deeper look at the long-term interdependence of Western capitalism and Chinese communism will take place.

So it should. The debate over Huawei, where I believe the current Government policy of allowing a significant part of the 5G network to contain kit made by the Chinese state company is a strategic error, should cause us to examine our whole relationship with the Chinese government.

I should be clear that I think the Huawei decision would remain wrong even if we had never heard of Covid-19, and if social distancing was a description of a Victorian lady’s Sunday afternoon walk. But perhaps we can regard the Huawei debate (which is not over) as a precursor to a much wider and even more important one.

Essentially, for the past ten years, British policy has proceeded on the assumption that the economic gain from linking our economy closely with the Chinese was worth the obvious risks.

Those risks were partly about national security in the traditional sense, in that at no stage has China stopped attempting to infiltrate our systems or compromise our intelligence, but also more widely about allowing China to dominate the infrastructure on which our daily lives depend.

In the more cynical corners of Whitehall this open-eyed acceptance of the risks was known as Project Kow-Tow.

It was not a dishonourable bargain to try to make, but it has not worked. The Chinese at every stage have continued to behave as an aggressive adversary.

In the early days of China’s adoption of a capitalist economic model along with a totalitarian political one, there was hope in the West that China would become just another member of the international community.

The West was prepared within broad limits to overlook what happened to Chinese citizens internally as long as China obeyed international trading rules and played its strong hand in the international economy more or less within the existing rules.

We can now see that this is not the extent of President Xi’s ambition. His determination to Make China Great Again is at least as strong as his American adversary, and can be planned over a longer timeframe.

Other countries’ interests are just not that important. My own experience at face-to-face meetings when I was a minister showed two institutions which really didn’t care very much what the British Government thought: the Chinese government, and Google. (And months later Google changed tack)

This is the background that will face the Government when life returns to whatever is normal after the emergency. What practical steps can be taken to put our relationship with China on a more realistic footing? Not hostile, but more wary than we have been in the past.

The first thing to recognise is that this is not just a matter of decisions which are entirely in the hands of ministers. Our whole economic system has become dependent on global supply chains which have China as an essential link.

Many big companies need to be encouraged to look at this, and diversify the location of their basic manufacturing plants. I foresee a boom for Vietnam and Cambodia.

But the UK government can take steps within international institutions. The World Health Organisation, as the Coronavirus crisis has developed, has seemed to be completely indulgent towards the Chinese authorities while being ever-ready (as they should be) to criticise other governments.

Whatever charges can be laid at the door of others, it is undeniable that the pandemic started because of unhygienic practices in Chinese markets, which have been known about for years, and that the Chinese authorities were dilatory in informing the WHO about the outbreak.

None of this has passed the lips of senior WHO officials, and like many others I have been appalled at the widely-shared interview with the WHO spokesman who flatly refused to answer any questions about Taiwan, because he had already spoken about regions of China. Reforming the WHO is a good task for the future.

The most important task, though, will be to protect the independence of the internet. The Chinese have spent the last few years floating the idea of a New Internet Protocol. This will take power away from the existing institutions, which are private-sector and American, and put the infrastructure under the power of national governments. The jargon used is “digital sovereignty”.

You do not have to be an unqualified admirer of Facebook, Google, and the others to accept that whatever problems of regulation they pose, it is less damaging to have the current system where no-one can control everything, than a system where the state does control everything.

Indeed, if one state (China) makes the kit and the system allows full state control, then that state is in a good position to decide how much internet access any citizen in any country is allowed.

It sounds fanciful but concrete proposals for a new internet have been put to international bodies, supported by authoritarian states and even by some woolly-minded liberals who hate Facebook so much that they can’t recognise something even worse on the horizon. We need reform of internet regulation. We do not need our whole digital infrastructure dependent on expansionist state actors.

The UK stance towards China, regrettably, may have to become similar to our attitude to Russia in the more peaceful stages of the Cold War. Co-operate where we can, but guard when we must. It is a depressing prospect in many ways, but at least we can console ourselves with the thought the right side won the Cold War in the end. We need to protect our values as well as our economy.

89 comments for: Damian Green: Our approach to China may now have to be more like our attitude to Russia during parts of the Cold War

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