[Christina Rees in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall am 3:37 pm ar 15 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Catherine West Catherine West Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 3:37, 15 Mai 2024

It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate under your chairmanship, Ms Rees.

I was going to begin by saying that I thought I was one of the few Members of this House who had lived in China and spoke Mandarin, but I see that others have turned out in great numbers, including Mark Logan and my hon. Friend Neil Coyle. Many of us taught English to begin with, as I did in Nanjing in the 1990s. All of us agree that the Chinese people gave us enormous amounts of hospitality, and a warm and friendly experience, and showed so much pride in a 5,000-year-old civilisation, a passion to modernise China, and a desire to provide for more Chinese people to no longer live in poverty.

As the years have gone by, the tone coming from the Chinese Government has changed. Undoubtedly, 30 years of economic progress has catapulted China to become the world’s second largest economy by some measure, with a newly enriched middle class enjoying lives a world away from most Chinese people in the 1980s. However, the more authoritarian and even belligerent look and feel to foreign relations has increasingly caused us to be concerned about the risk to a rules-based international order.

In Hong Kong, the rule of law, under which its economy and society flourished for generations, has been worn down, and journalists such as Jimmy Lai—who has already been mentioned—continue to be detained on politically motivated charges. Hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers have fled for a better life overseas, with less repression and more freedoms. I pay tribute to the cross-party group Hong Kong Watch—of which I am a founder; I declare an interest—and to the well-known campaigner Ben Rogers, who is a great stalwart for that campaign. I know that he enjoys the respect of all Members of the House.

In Xinjiang, which has been mentioned in the debate, the Uyghur minority are subjected to brutal repression and horrific human rights abuses, including wholesale attempts to eliminate their culture and religion. Jim Shannon is quite right to emphasise the importance of freedom of religion or belief in anything that we talk about in relation to foreign policy.

In the South China sea—I know that Bob Seely has a background in defence—Chinese vessels and aircraft repeatedly test the boundaries of international law, destabilising regional security and threatening some of the world’s most important shipping lanes. Of course, the increasing military activity in the Taiwan strait, particularly in the last three years, is troubling many of us.

No foreign policy question is more fundamental than how the west manages its relationship with China in the years ahead, and it is obvious, as the hon. Member for Isle of Wight said at the start of the debate, that that starts with our multilateral approach and friends in the US and, of course, in Australia and down in that part of the world. It goes to the question of identity and closed and open societies. For the UK, as a UN Security Council permanent member and a G20 partner, that is particularly the case, and it is a question that we must address head-on, with seriousness, consistency and rigour. But it is a question that is rightly linked to our wider approach to the Indo-Pacific. We cannot have a sustained and serious approach to China without having a wider-ranging British approach to the Indo-Pacific. Without a doubt, the AUKUS relationship with the US and Australia is at the cornerstone of that regional approach.

Labour is of course committed to further strengthening our co-operation with the US and Australia in the Indo-Pacific through AUKUS and particularly through delivery of the second pillar of the agreement. We are equally committed to deepening our increasingly close relationships with ASEAN—the Association of Southeast Asian Nations—through our trade arrangements there, and with Japan and South Korea. We welcome the moves that have been made in that regard over the past few years, but that work must be encased within a wider and more sustained strategy towards the region as a whole, including China.

Sadly, for most of the past 14 years the UK Government’s approach has basically been the opposite to what we need, which is stability and predictability. We have lurched 180 degrees from embracing a “golden era” of bilateral relations and having a pint down the pub with Xi Jinping under the then Prime Minister, who is now Foreign Secretary; indeed, some of the questions as to his financial arrangements prior to his becoming Foreign Secretary also bring questions to this debate. This is simply not good enough. China thinks in generational terms, and we require a foreign policy that is capable of considering the bilateral relationship over a far longer timeframe and that aims above all for consistency.

Earlier this year, I travelled to Beijing as part of a cross-party delegation and met senior members of the Chinese leadership, having been approached to do by the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy. I made it clear that Labour would pursue a more sustainable and coherent relationship. Such a relationship must begin with addressing our concerns about national security and standing up for our principles on human rights, but it must also set out avenues for co-operation, both bilaterally and within the multilateral system, and allow our country’s businesses to have the certainty and stability to make the long-term investment decisions that they deserve. The shadow Foreign Secretary has been clear that that relationship will be centred on a framework to “challenge, compete and co-operate” with China, which we will develop through a comprehensive and long-overdue audit of the bilateral relationship—an element mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark.

However, even in advance of the audit, some of the changes that we need to see are obvious, and I hope that the Minister will have some answers for us today. He will be aware that the issue of the threat posed to Hongkongers has been raised many times in the House. Indeed, just this week Amnesty International has brought out a report called “On my campus, I am afraid”. I wonder what recommendations on a cross-Government approach to that issue the Minister will take back to the Government.

In addition to that, we have an excellent question from Stewart Malcolm McDonald about whether there has been a back door that gives access to various projects that could have national security implications, through devolved nations. Furthermore, what is the industrial strategy on which the Government are deciding on important projects such as the new electric vehicles being sold at Ellesmere Port, about which my hon. Friend Justin Madders spoke so eloquently? He knows his patch so well and stands up for not just his workforce but the businesses there, as well as for the importance of a vibrant operation in the north-west, with own vehicles, which of course involves international collaboration but it is not dominated by another party. Will the Minister speak to that important question of an industrial strategy?

There are so many challenges here, but it is in our national interest to have a cohesive and comprehensive approach to our relationship with China, addressing the most complex of countries and relationships in their entirety. The issues at stake go to the heart of our security and prosperity, and we cannot just muddle along as we have been. Labour will have a new approach. We will do our audit. We will be clear-eyed, consistent, and guided, above all, by the national interest.