UK can commit to more inventive diplomacy

Source:Global Times Published: 2015-6-30 0:28:01

Kerry Brown

Editor's Note:

With the UK looking to find a new global role, diplomacy remains a key issue for London. Kerry Brown (Brown), professor of Chinese politics and director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, recently discussed the topic "the future of diplomacy: the case of China and the UK" at Chatham House in London. Global Times (GT) London correspondent Sun Wei interviewed him on his new book and his thoughts on UK diplomacy.

GT: In your new book What's Wrong With Diplomacy?, you proposed that British diplomats should abandon old-fashioned diplomacy and interact better with China. Can you summarize the major stereotypes of British foreign policy? You suggested that diplomats should use the word "commitment" rather than "engagement" when dealing with China, why?

UK-China relations have a long history. From 1949 to 1997, the most important issue between the two countries was Hong Kong. We had lots of legal and diplomatic issues. After the return of Hong Kong, there were not many issues except building up normal diplomatic ties.

We are now in a very different era. China is a very different country, and we need a different way dealing with China.

The relationship is more about the power of ideas and creativity. The UK needs to do more to build and encourage intellectual and academic ties, because China is actually quite hungry for ideas. In general, we need a kind of diplomacy that supports people-to-people links, which is very good at the moment.

I criticized "engagement" in my book, because it is a little bit cool and conditional; whereas "commitment" means you have areas of deep-shared interests that you can really work on. My discussion is not about the UK-China relationship in a broad sense, but our diplomatic interaction, which is very old-fashioned. We are 10 years behind what's happening. Diplomats are still talking in the language of 10 years ago. Embassies need a new business model.

The UK and China don't have the political relationship they once had, when they had lots of diplomatic work on agreements on Hong Kong. We need to update our diplomatic relations, making them more creative and more about dialogues and ideas.

GT: Britain announced in March it would apply to be a founding member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). And later France, Germany and Italy joined Britain in signing up to the China-backed AIIB, despite US opposition. Did this surprise you?

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne is very practical in dealing with China. I think he thought that it's in UK's interest to join the AIIB. It's better for the UK to be inside of the AIIB rather than outside. The UK has huge expertise in international finance.

Being part of the AIIB is a good way of looking after their own financial services. The US' initial response was quite critical. But sooner or later, the US will either join the AIIB or work with the AIIB more closely.

I guess I was surprised at the very beginning. Britain once stayed very close to the US, and on the AIIB, it showed some independence.

But as you understand more about what the AIIB intends to do, it's not that surprising.

GT: In the campaigns leading up to the general election last month, foreign affairs were rarely mentioned. Some observers have drawn a conclusion that the UK is withdrawing from the world stage. What's your opinion?

The world is becoming far more complicated. It's not surprising that the UK, the US, China and every other country are rethinking their foreign policy approaches. 

Secondly, I don't think the UK being influential means taking on big responsibilities. It's no longer a colonial power. The UK is looking after its own interests more, not getting involved in the Middle East, where it does not have the capacity to take on that kind of responsibility.

Finally, the UK is not becoming less influential, but transforming as a global actor and being influential in different forms. In future, influence will lie more in influential bodies such as the AIIB, rather than pretending you have the political clouts that you don't.

The UK has learnt from history. The old style of diplomacy in the past, for instance, in 20th century, caused terrible problems. It's good that we don't want that kind of diplomacy. The current diplomacy is more about finding consensus, and finding practical ways of working with each other. We need to use our influence and ideas.

The tensions in the East and South China Seas require long, hard, and patient diplomacy. I don't think anyone believes using force or bullying will resolve the problems. 

I am not pessimistic about the UK's future. The UK is a power with many allies and strengths and it is still a very strong economy. We have great cultural impact, and capability to change.

GT: Can you share some insights on the current team in the British government which is in charge of China affairs?

On the whole, they don't have a great deal of knowledge about China. Some politicians dealing with China might have no background in Asia at all.

In terms of advice, we have a hugely talented foreign service; they need to be given more space by the politicians to do their work, to contribute ideas, and to produce different ways of looking at the relationship with China.

The embassies need to become more like think-tanks, producing ideas. The current model of embassies just serving politicians is quite inaccessible. Rather than being careful or neutral, ambassadors need to be more challenging, questioning how we approach and talk to China, and doing things more creatively.

We are smaller power now, and we are relieved from the responsibilities that the US has. We should have diplomacy with a smile, and we need to have more fun.

GT: As a close ally of the US, the UK is due to face dilemmas like the AIIB application. Do you think Britain will continue to show independence in this regard?

If the US can make up its mind about what it believes that China is doing, that might be easier. It's not likely that China or the US can really have conflicts because they have lots to lose.

The US would like to see the continuance of status quo, whereas China wants to see some change. But then China doesn't want see big responsibilities fall on its head, and it doesn't want to become a new US. Despite all these fierce words, there will always be a way to work with each other at least for the next 10 to 15 years.

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