Published:

65 comments

A Lords amendment to the Trade Bill giving power to our courts to revoke trade deals with countries they determine to be guilty of genocide was narrowly defeated in the Commons last month.  Its target was China.

The Bill is back in Commons today and so is the issue.  The Lords have meanwhile passed another related amendment.  Its merits are arguable either way.

On the one hand, the proposed empowerment of the courts to revoke trade deals in the event of a genocide determination is gone.  The Government says that politicians should decide our trade policy, not our judges.  We agree.

On the other, a proposed empowerment of the courts to rule on trade deals in the event of a genocide detemination replaces it.  Ministers say that this is a distinction without a difference.  Again, we agree.

But the matter is debatable either way, like so much else connected with it.  Perhaps our courts are capable of doing what international courts have occasionally done, and consider genocide cases properly.  And perhaps not.

Maybe China is indeed committing genocide against the Uighurs, as it is certainly inflicting crimes against humanity on them.  And maybe not.

There is no unanimous view among anti-genocide campaigners.  Some add that government seems incapable of acting on determinations of genocide already made by international courts: Andrew Mitchell made that case recently about Rwanda.

The more one ponders the whole matter, the odder it becomes.  Why are the anti-Chinese government campaigners behind the amendment set upon erecting the highest legal bar that they would have to jump – namely, proving China guilty of genocide?

Why, too, are they pushing for a genocide determination when they concede themselves that it might not bring the consequences they want?  One of those campaigners admitted to ConservativeHome that this is “fairly uncharted territory”.

And why all the fuss about trade deals that don’t exist – and, as we write, have no prospect of existing?  Why is trade with China not discouraged anyway, given its treatment of the Uighurs, its conduct in Hong Kong and the strategic threat it poses?

But if the conduct of those campaigners is strange, that of the Government is even stranger.  For time out of mind, it has insisted that only a court can hear a determination of genocide, and stuck to that position.

But late last week, it suddenly shifted it position, and sought to persuade MPs to back an amendment that would, in effect, turn the whole business of China’s treatment of the Uighurs over to a Select Committee.

Tom Tugendhat makes no secret of regarding this invitation as a hospital pass, since the Government would not be bound to act on any decision his Foreign Affairs committee might reach, or even agree with it.

And if it agreed to consider the Uighars’ case, others would come knocking at his door: Palestinians, Kashmiris, Armenians – with their claim of a Turkish genocide in the early part of the last century.  Mitchell, with his claim that Rwandan war criminals are at large in the UK.

Why has the Government suddenly pulled this dubious rabbit from its hat?  For the simple reason is that it faced losing in the Commons today.  It won by only nine votes last time round.  Last weekend, Ministers were frantically phoning round potential rebels.

Yesterday, they were clearly in deep trouble.  And last night duly brought dodgy-looking business at the crossroads.  The genocide amendment has been bundled together with another one, and so can’t be properly considered.

There will doubtless be complaints, shouting and points of order this afternoon.  But what matters more than the procedural malarkey will be the forces that drive it.

China’s treatment of the Uighars, its conduct in Hong Kong, America’s long-term strategic rivalry with China – the Biden administration’s approach is as yet unclear – and the security threat it poses to the UK are shifting the tectonic policy plates here in Britain.

In the one corner are the securocrats and ethicists; in the other, the trade and Treasury interests.  In 2019, China was our sixth largest market abroad.  We sent 30.7 billion worth of exports there and got £49 billion worth of imports back.

The Department of International Trade has a facility devoted entirely to trade with China – “Department for International Trade China”: see its website.

“DIT provides trade and investment services and practical support. We help UK companies succeed in China, and Chinese companies set up and invest in the UK,” it says.

So on the one hand, we have government encouraging Chinese companies to do business in Britain, and on the other that same government threatening Britons who do business with them.

We refer to the 200 or so British academics who are being investigated on the suspicion of unwittingly helping the Chinese government build weapons of mass destruction.  This is only one of a growing burden of contradictions.

Tugendhat has a five-point strategic programme for policy on China, including trade diversification.  The Government is not inactive: Dominic Raab said recently that companies profiting from China’s treatment of the Uighars should be barred from the UK.

But while the Government may not be inert it is ultimately irresolute: a pushmepullyou with trade and security heads.  It may grease its way out of a Commons impasse today.  But a real crisis will come at some point tomorrow, as sure as eggs are eggs.

We are all for diversifying trade away from China, and suspect more sanctions will come or later (there is already an arms embargo on the country).  Britain must respond to what the country’s communist leadership is doing to the Uighars and in Hong Kong.

Nonetheless, we suspect that the Government’s clattering Chinese train is heading for a crash.  If we disengage commercially from it at pace, what are the implications for the supply of raw materials – such as lithium, which powers smartphones, laptops and tablets?

What if China responds by upping its carbon emissions further, given the stress that the Government is placing on climate change?  What if we shift our defence posture to concentrate on China…and Putin grabs Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia?  What of the accomodationist EU?

These are only some of a mass of questions – not the least of which is how deeply China has penetrated our national infrastructure.  Perhaps the Integrated Review of security, defence, development and foreign policy will offer answers.

If it does, it will be up to Ministers to impose them.  And that ultimately means Boris Johnson, beset as he is by the pandemic, this year’s Scottish election, the economy, delivering levelling-up and building Global Britain.

As the EU referendum, last year’s election, vaccine delivery and his own brush with Covid have proved, the Prime Minister has brilliant powers of improvisation and recovery.  But slow, sure, deliberative strategy isn’t really him.

Maybe, as Bob Seely has suggested, the Government needs some sort of National Strategy Council, which would think long-term, to mirror the National Security Council, whose business is necessarily short-term.

What’s certain is that today’s Twitter trend isn’t action – whether it be denouncing China over the Uighurs, say, or Putin over Alexei Navalny.  We cannot run our foreign policy by social media and moral spasm.