Sacred cows may safely graze?

Paul Atkin reflects on Labour, China and the New Cold War

The release of a substantial report, China’s Place in a Progressive British Foreign Policy from the Labour Foreign Policy Group gives the opportunity for a more serious debate on this issue than we have had in the Party of late.

The authors assert that the relationship between the UK and China “cannot be framed in purely adversarial terms.” And that, “As progressives, we need to pursue a policy towards China that supports Britain’s national interests and those of our allies without cutting China off or embarking on ideological warfare for its own sake.”

This is somewhat more nuanced than the line espoused by the current Shadow Foreign Affairs team. In discussing China, most Party members get their news from the national media, which has sustained a remorseless drum beat of negative stories designed to create a national consensus on China in which the possibility that there is anything positive to say about it at all is ruled out before you start. Without getting into an attempt to rebut or at least qualify some of these stories, members wanting a more rounded and balanced view might want to have a look at CGTN – which has been refused a media licence in the UK precisely to close down the accessibility of an alternative view. Also, have a read of this document, which raises questions about the Western narrative in a reasonable and thoughtful way or, if you like your liquor hard, dip into The Grayzone.

That said, this report is drafted by serious China scholars and raises a number of awkward issues for Labour’s current bipartisan Foreign Policy stance which, unfortunately, it then fails to explore. The purpose of this article is not to look at all the points raised in a rather hefty document, but to draw out some key themes and unexamined premises to develop the discussion so that the ultimate sacred cow of Labour Foreign Policy – the Atlantic Alliance – is put under scrutiny.

Cause for celebration

As the authors point out, “The rise of China is the most significant long-term trend in global politics and economics.”  The flip side of this is that, for the first time since 1871, the United States is not the world’s largest economy. This has been true in Purchasing Power Parity terms since 2014 and, other things being equal, will be the case on any measure before the end of this decade.

 It is the increasingly aggressive reaction of the United States to this inexorable loss of global dominance that is the barely examined elephant in the room in this report. Sadly, this elephant is not solely a Republican one. Also only touched on as a background issue in this report is the accelerating pace and increasing impact of climate breakdown, which poses existential questions for the United States’ model of society and the ‘American Way of Life’. Highly privatised, mindlessly consumerist, gas-guzzling, suburban sprawling, with the world’s highest oil and gas production running through its DNA, and producing a per capita carbon footprint three times the global average, it is no longer a viable vision for anyone’s future, even its own.

As the report notes, “For those on the political Left, there is much to celebrate” about China. “800 million people have been lifted out of poverty – perhaps the single most significant contribution to human wellbeing in world history. Life expectancy has increased from 44 years in 1960 to 77 years in 2019. Between 1982 and 2018 China’s literacy rate increased from 66% to 97%, easily outstripping that of its closest comparator developing country, India.”

That statement about 800 million people being lifted out of poverty is something for everyone to think about. 800 million is a lot of people. Every one of them is a real living, breathing person, more than a statistic. It is a qualitative improvement in the lives of twelve times as many people as currently live in the UK.

The acknowledgement that this might be particularly celebrated on the “political left” recognises that China sees itself as a country “building Socialism with Chinese characteristics” and is therefore a polity that the “political left” has some affinity with, that at the very least requires some serious engagement from it.

Whatever the left in the West thinks of China, it can’t be gainsaid that China made these advances because its economy is run by what the report describes as a “Party State”, by a Communist Party with 90 million members, not by the private sector. It is not neo-liberalism. It is outside the Washington consensus, which has imposed debts, privatisation and economic stagnation on so many developing countries, the better for the Global North and its corporations to continue to plunder them.

By contrast, it was largely Chinese trade that provided the economic space for the Latin American pink tide. The private sector has grown and thrived in China, but it does not call the shots. It is therefore rather strange for Sonny Leong, in his Cold War polemic on Labour List, to argue that “Labour must do all it can to challenge a dangerous ideology that stands against everything we believe in”. As this “dangerous ideology” has achieved “perhaps the most significant contribution to human wellbeing in world history” we might be forgiven for wanting to learn from it instead. 

So, on the one hand, we have a country that does this. On the other, we have the United States of America which very often does indeed put into practice “a dangerous ideology that stands against everything we believe in”. The formula used in the report to make alignment with the latter an unquestioned default position is “Britain’s national interests and those of our allies”. This begs the question of whether there is a single “national interest” common to everyone in the country – a question more often assumed than asked – but which primarily serves to disguise the actual relationship of the UK to the US and the nature of its alliance.

Since Suez put paid to delusions of independent imperial action, the aim of successive UK governments has been to act as a junior partner in US global domination. It was put graphically, if inelegantly, by Tony Blair in his advice to the UK Ambassador to Washington to “get up the arse of the White House and stay there.” This is not a relationship that bears the slightest scrutiny from the point of view of ‘universal human rights’ or ‘social justice’: given the USA’s constant invasions, bombing campaigns, drone murders, torture camps (sometimes outsourced for plausible deniability) coups and colour revolutions, assassinations, finance for terrorism: all aimed against ‘social justice and human rights’. Pick almost any country across the world, and they’ve done something to it – or have a base there, or both.

In this context, it is worth considering the role of the two countries in two major challenges facing humanity now and in the coming decades. This is not to say that everything in China is wonderful, just to give it credit where credit is due.


China has had a zero covid policy, using strict lockdowns, effective track and trace, quarantines and social mobilisation to squash the initial outbreak in Hubei Province and prevent its spread to other areas, thereby eliminating domestic infections. They continue to suppress reintroductions from outside visitors. This has kept total deaths to 4,600. 

At current rates, the UK is losing that many people every month. People in China are aghast at the business of prioritising carelessness with human life shown by the West and its obtuse reliance on a vaccine only policy, that has led to 788,000 deaths in the US and 146,000 in the UK. The bodies are mounting up and the insistence that we have to ‘live with the virus’ just means that people will continue to die from it.

The hoarding of vaccines by the Global North is also a brutally clear indictment of the economic and political power relations embodied in the “rules based international order” that the UK and its allies defend. In this context China has exported more than 1.2 billion vaccines to other countries, compared with the EU’s 853 million doses and the USA’s 178 million. Sneers about ‘Covid diplomacy’ don’t cut much ice in the Global South, coming as they do from countries that are not supplying the goods.

Climate Breakdown

China getting this right is absolutely crucial for all of us, and the report rightly emphasises the importance of cooperation and collective action with them. China’s plan and actions are classified by the Civil Society Review as a little below where they need to be and there is currently a live debate there about how soon before 2030 emissions should peak and how rapidly they should decline.

More hopefully, the Internal Energy Agency reports that, at current rates of progress, China will have installed its 2030 target of 1200GW of renewable energy by 2026, four years early. The decision to stop funding overseas coal is reckoned by the same agency to be equivalent to the whole EU getting to net zero by 2050, so a very big deal indeed.

China has a tendency to under-promise and over-deliver, which is just as well. The picture in the US is, however, becoming alarming. President Biden’s attempt to put the country on a more serious path to emissions reduction – despite its popularity with voters – is being blocked and hobbled by fossil fuel-financed Senators in ‘the best democracy money can buy’. At present the budget has been cut to just $55 billion a year for climate transition, mostly in the form of consumer incentives rather than direct investment. If passed, this is reckoned to go just a sixth of the way to meeting the target for 2030. And these targets, even if achieved, would still leave the per capita US carbon footprint at double the current level in the UK or China today.

Current opinion polling points to the Republicans taking back control of Congress in the midterms in 2022 and the White House in 2024 (probably on a minority of the popular vote again), at which point withdrawal from the Paris process is back on the cards, with a revived “America First” policy seeking to sustain its bloated consumption at everyone else’s expense and no concessions to the survival of human civilisation.

Trump restored?

This is the point at which the report takes fright at what is currently happening in the USA, arguing, “The USA is an indispensable ally, but has been blighted by domestic political volatility and foreign policy instability over the past decade; the potential for divergence between Britain and the USA over China will be particularly acute if a populist hawk such as Donald Trump were to be elected in 2024.”

In the event of Donald Trump’s Second Coming, we would be faced with an even more volatile and dangerous situation than now. Just how dangerous is spelled out by former Trump Deputy Assistant Secretary for Defence Eldrige Colby, who crafted Trump’s 2018 Defence strategy. In his book, The Strategy of Denial, he argues for a “limited” conventional war centred on Taiwan. This is the game plan for Steve Bannon’s argument that the USA has to fight a war with China by 2024 if it is to “win”.

Colby’s calculation is terrifyingly unhinged, in that he believes a full-on shooting war between the USA and China could be kept to conventional weapons. He believes that war of this sort is a viable option for the USA because the modelling for a conventional war fought in and around China would damage the US economy by 10% but the Chinese by 40%. Therefore, the USA “wins”. The people who would die don’t get much attention: collateral damage.

With a Trumpite restoration, there is no doubt that a Conservative government which gets most of its ideas off the peg from the US Republicans in any case would be dusting off its MAGA hats, while the Tory press would be going straight down the rabbit hole of military escalation to cheer us over the brink. The report argues that Labour should distance itself from such a development and seek allies in the EU to do so. Regardless of the possibility of finding allies who would seek to restrain the USA from heading for Armageddon with eyes wide shut, a more immediate question is how far a membership that voted against the AUKUS Pact can prevent a leadership for whom Atlanticism is dyed in the blood from being dragged in Trump’s wake as Tony Blair was dragged in that of George W. Bush.

The line in Sonny Leong’s article in Labour List that peace is best maintained by “raising the stakes” with encircling military alliances and brinkmanship with naval task forces is an example of the dynamic of this logic. It is also the sort of line adopted by all the Great Powers in the years leading up to World War One – that the best security against war was to prepare for it, which worked really well – until it didn’t. The leadership of Jeremy Corbyn prevented this dynamic during Trump’s first Presidency, with a positive impact on wider British politics and we should build on that legacy.

A handbook for a ‘limited’ cold war

While the alarm in the report at this prospect is real, it is unfortunate that most of it nevertheless reads as a handbook for a ‘limited’ cold war that would lead us to being sucked along with it going hot if we carry it out. Two examples will suffice to get the picture.

The argument that the UK should “decouple” from Chinese supply chains would lead to an economic dislocation that could exceed the impact of Brexit. The authors frequently stress that the post-Brexit UK is a significantly reduced power in all respects, but they argue for a course of economic action that would compound that decline by trying to partly wall ourselves off from the world’s fastest growing economy. This is making self-harm into a habit. Keeping Huawei out of the UK 5G system, for instance, requires using more expensive and less effective Western alternatives, which we will pay for in more ways than one.

 More dangerously, putting restrictions on economic relations is often part of a preparation for more active conflict, makes people in all the countries concerned poorer. It wastes resources at a time when we need more connections between people and economies to make maximum use of a mutually beneficial global division of labour, not fewer.

The same applies to the argument that China is aiming at “elite capture”; a confrontational way to frame the prospect that people in academia, or politics, or business might be impressed enough by what’s happening in China to point that out to others. Freezing, monitoring and suppressing academic cooperation so that only the Western narrative gets heard is already being applied – very single-mindedly in the media and increasingly in universities. 

The attempts to control narratives and narrow the range of views that it is possible to express – something of a Conservative obsession –  indicates a nervousness on their part that politically useful claims may not be able to stand up to scrutiny. Labour should not be complicit in such an ideological hardening of the arteries. If the report is serious about its claims that one of the UKs strengths is openness to ideas, it needs to be open to ideas.

China does not see its increasing weight and influence in the same zero-sum way as the West does. They argue instead for “win- win” cooperation, and “a common future for humanity” in an “ecological civilisation”. That these are not empty slogans is indicated by an investment in green transition that is one and a half times what they are spending on their military. This contrasts with the USA, which is spending fourteen times as much on its armed forces as it plans to spend on green transition. Whatever anyone thinks of China, we need to get our own house in order in the West and start reversing that perverse allocation of resources, which is a threat to everyone.

The report argues that, “British history contains a wealth of examples that demonstrate that our country can use its power for ill – whether through support for slavery, imperialism, or economic exploitation – or for good – from the global foundations of democracy in the Leveller movement of the 17th century, to the Scottish Enlightenment, the origins of feminism and the extraordinary contributions to life-saving scientific breakthroughs. Consequently, with the right policies, a strong Britain has the potential to harness its power to become, as Keir Starmer has put it, a ‘moral force for good in the world’.”

To take this at its word, that means that Labour – in government or opposition – will need to push positive cultural, scientific and politically progressive contributions – from a waiver of vaccine patents to aid for green technology – and reject a foreign policy that maintains support for Cold War, imperialism, wars of intervention and economic exploitation by ourselves and ‘our allies’ in the Global North. A policy of consciously reducing tension and military pressure would release pressure on all sides for resources to be deployed more single-mindedly to avoid climate breakdown, fight Covid and reduce poverty.

Paul Atkin blogs at

Image: Flag-map of the People’s Republic of China. Source: File:Xinjiang Kashgar.svg. File:Flag of the People’s Republic of China.svg. Author: NuclearVacuum, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Subscribe to the blog for email notifications of new posts