Brexit Britain must help Asia's democracies stand up to oppressive China – Jim Sillars

The UK should seek to forge closer trade and political partnerships with democratic countries in the Asia-Pacific region where a great battle of ideas is being played out, writes Jim Sillars.

Riot police detain a man as they clear protesters taking part in a rally against a new national security law in Hong Kong on July 1 (Picture: dale de la Rey/AFP via Getty Images)

Advocating Scottish independence, while simultaneously welcoming a report on how an independent United Kingdom, free from the European Union, can be a more effective and successful participant in economic and political developments in the world, is not a contradiction.

Geography will always matter. Scotland shares Great Britain with England and Wales, and it will be in the interests of an independent Scotland to continue sharing a single market with them too.

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Whatever economic strategies an independent Scotland might employ in future, it is unlikely the 60 per cent of Scottish exports to the rest of the UK will substantially reduce in coming decades. The richer England, Wales and Northern Ireland become, the better their market will be for Scottish exports.

Short of independence, Scots will have an even bigger stake in how the United Kingdom uses its restored sovereignty. Will emphasis continue to be placed on the sluggish EU market, or will there be a shift in effort to the Asia-Pacific region where markets are growing?

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In the 1992 general election, I tried to explain to an audience in Govan that the economic, political and military hegemony exercised by the West for almost 400 years was over – that power was shifting inexorably to the Asia-Pacific region. Still in the Western comfort zone all those years ago, people didn’t like to face a very new world, full of complications and uncomfortable challenges never met before. My opponent, who won, dismissed my Asia-Pacific forecast, and, to applause, said what was required was “a Labour government”, a magic pill.

There is no magic pill. There is opportunity. None today can dismiss the dynamism that exists in the Asia-Pacific region, in which India is an exemplar, nor ignore the market opportunities that are arising from the expanding spending power that goes along with rising living standards, as a new middle class emerges in great numbers.

China is being oppressively assertive

While a member of the EU, Britain could not have an independent trade policy, and foreign policy needed to be in-step with the other 27 members. One second after the stroke of 12 midnight this Hogmanay, the EU shackles are off, and opportunity opens to make a quantum shift in UK foreign and trade policies towards a deeper engagement with Asia.

The report, Role of An Independent United Kingdom In The Indo-Pacific Region, marries imagination with good sense, in showing the benefits that can flow from forging new relations with countries within that region.

Its value does not lie only in its proposals for a new trade policy, but in its explanation of why deeper relations are required for strategic political reasons – the need to become a more active partner for the democratic countries in the region as they face China. a China exercising military muscle in the South China Sea and on the Indian border, while wielding economic power to become oppressively assertive towards countries it deems to have been offended by.

The open threats to Australia’s trade and tourism for daring to request an inquiry into how Covid-19 got loose in the world is but one example.

A major factor in that power-shift to the Indo-Pacific (I prefer the broader Asia-Pacific) has been the rise of China, which has gone from basket case to economic powerhouse.

In 1961 China’s gross domestic product per capita was US$91. In 1978, it was $229, in 2019 $10,099. That phenomenal performance has lifted 500 million out of grinding poverty, and is to be warmly welcomed.

But there is a downside. A big one. The Chinese people’s country is not owned or governed by them, but by the 91 million-member Communist Party.

Enlightened self-interest

The subtleties, nuances, give and take, compromises, and respect for others that are marked characteristics of democracy are all absent in Xi Jinping’s method of ruling China. The motive of the 2014 Hong Kong umbrella movement – seeking a wider franchise in the selection of the chief executive, instead of the 1,200 ‘safe’ electors – was beyond the understanding of the Chinese Communist Party’s politburo. The language Beijing employs in response to criticism is brutal, as is the action taken internally.

That major Chinese factor will not disappear anytime soon. China is not the 1980s Soviet Union with its non-performing economy making it ready for collapse. Whatever adjustments are made to the world economy post-Covid, China will continue to strengthen its economy, and will, internally, demand “unity of thought” (Xi) from the Chinese people. Xi is not a Gorbachev. The Communist Party will continue to rule China as long as it has an army willing to shoot the people, as it did in Tiananmen Square in 1989. After taking power, Xi told the People’s Liberation Army its loyalty was to the Communist Party. That it might be to the people and the state never seemed to cross his mind. We shall have to continue to live with this China as a great force in the world community. How we live with it is what will matter.

It will be an act of enlightened self-interest for the United Kingdom to weave its foreign and trade policies closer together, and re-direct them to close trade and political partnerships with the Asian democracies, and in so doing assist them build their economic strength, and so be better able to withstand the pressures China seeks to bring upon them.

The Asia-Pacific region is where the great struggles for democracy and the extension of human rights are taking place against authoritarianism. An independent United Kingdom should be in there, as a working partner to the democracies, not punting a military power it no longer has, but the softer power of norms, values and principles that underpin a free polity. It used to be that gunboats followed trade, now it has to be democratic ideas.

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