China needs to be brought to heel on trade, but let’s do it by example

China’s potentially vast internal market is plainly something worth aspiring to, but may be ultimately unobtainable. If access is based more on genuflection and obedience than on internationally agreed rules, it may in any case not be worth pursuing. If there is any economic sense at all in Beijing’s growing geopolitical assertiveness, it is presumably based on a similar calculation – that having leveraged Western markets so aggressively to turbocharge China’s economic development, a critical mass has now been reached where Western markets are no longer needed quite as much as they used to be to keep the growth machine whirring.

Nonetheless, the West plays a dangerous game if the intention is completely to ostracise the Chinese dragon. An entirely self-sufficient China, pushed into alliance with some of our more obvious enemies such as Russia and Iran, would not at all be in Western interests. It’s a minor point obviously, but what too is to become of many of our universities once stripped of the 100,000 Chinese students who pay top dollar to study in Britain. It is also largely fantasy to think that all, or even most, trade with China can cease without very considerable economic cost. Where do the Sinophobes think Britain’s stockpile of PPE for next winter’s anticipated second spike in Covid-19 comes from? Where too do they imagine the Nokia and Ericsson kit proffered as an alternative to Huawei is assembled? Not in Scandinavia, still less Britain and the US, that’s for sure. Commercial priorities must of course never come before the wider national interest, but I do worry that some of our more gung-ho politicians have not fully thought through the economic and diplomatic consequences of their demands.

However much we might crave it, complete decoupling of our economy from China seems both impractical and to be frank about it, therefore unlikely. And if, out of loyalty to Trump’s America, we do go that route, what happens if and when the US finally reaches a new accommodation with China?

It is almost certainly naive to believe that China can be contained, so unless we are about to declare a war on the beast – a war we could never win – we are going to have to learn to live with its cocksure conceits. The best way to do this is to ensure that viable rules based alternatives to the mercantilism of its trading practices are created that in time force China to play by Western ways.

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