Merging the department for international development with the foreign office could strengthen the UK’s role as a provider of life-saving aid while protecting democratic values in the face of growing international threats, not least from the world’s second-largest economy. We know that the Chinese authorities suppressed the extent of the coronavirus outbreak, punishing whistleblowers and potentially costing thousands of lives by delaying the global response.
Meanwhile, the freedoms of the people of Hong Kong are under siege, Taiwan is threatened and millions of Uighur Muslims have been herded into detention camps. Britain itself is at the centre of a geopolitical tug of war, as the battle over the rollout of 5G infrastructure continues.
China’s muscle-flexing and human rights violations have been met with relative inactivity from the international community for too long, in part due to an unhealthy dependency on trade and investment. Last month, Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, proposed an independent global inquiry into the origin of the coronavirus outbreak.
China struck back by imposing an 80 per cent import tax on Australian barley and suspending beef imports from four of its abattoirs. More recently, Beijing threatened to punish HSBC and break commitments to build nuclear power plants in the UK unless Westminster allows Huawei to build its 5G network.
In the global south, home to some of the world’s most vulnerable people, China’s approach to the art of “economic statecraft” tells a similar tale. Rather than using aid to help developing countries become independent and stand on their own two feet, Xi Jinping’s “belt and road initiative” has used parts of China’s aid budget to foster a global network of dependency and obedience.
Over the past decade, it has grown to become one of the largest aid donors to the developing nations, contributing $354.3bn of foreign assistance to 140 countries between 2000 and 2014. But from the power sector in Pakistan to mining operations in Zambia, the essence of the game is the same – a “ts & cs” style diplomacy which risks leaving its recipients poorer, more burdened, and increasingly vulnerable to Chinese state coercion.
As China attempts to expand its influence, UK aid will be integral to tempering its efforts, being one of our most valuable soft power assets. Unlike the “debt diplomacy” and dependency fostered by Chinese aid, the UK’s aid budget has for decades contributed to the prosperity of developing countries by helping them to stand on their own feet.
The department for international development has been at the forefront of these efforts, and its expertise and emphasis on delivering for those in need must be preserved as it is absorbed into the foreign and commonwealth office.
South Korea is a poignant example of a nation that has successfully graduated from being a former aid recipient to become a high-income country and part of the global rules-based order. Last year, the UK traded £7.2bn worth of goods and services with South Korea, making them one of our top trading partners in east Asia.
Supporting emerging democracies to prosper is good for the UK and the global community, reducing reliance on powers such as China who are trying to buy influence. This focus on using aid to do the right thing strengthens democracy and human rights and speaks to our values as a nation: we are an outward-facing, tolerant, compassionate and decent country that respects democracy, the rule of law and human rights.
We are an example to others. This stands in stark contrast to what is taking place in Hong Kong, where the Chinese communist party is eroding the fundamental rights of citizens.
With tensions likely to remain high for some time, there is a clear need to re-assert our own soft power influence, particularly as we reassess our role in the international community. In the years to come, as the US appears to withdraw from its long-held global leadership role and China seeks greater influence post-Covid, UK aid and its focus on poverty elimination must remain a key pillar in our strategy to ensure that freedom and human rights are not stamped on by those seeking to upend the global balance of power.
With the government’s integrated review of foreign policy, security and international development on the horizon, we have an opportunity to define a new vision for how to protect and enhance our standing in the world. So let’s choose freedom, prosperity and stability for ourselves and for our international partners, by remaining a global leader in overseas development.