China is not "the winner of Brexit"

I hadn’t intended to write on this topic: the situation in London is still in considerable flux, making long-term prognostications about China, Europe and the UK at best difficult. But there have been a spate of “the winner of Brexit is China!” articles since the vote (see e.g. hereherehere, and here) that are misplaced. Other pieces that more accurately characterize China’s reaction have been published too (see e.g. herehere, and here) but, given its prevalence, the “China as winner” argument needs to be taken on.

1) Xi Jinping and other Chinese officials specifically said they did not want to see a Brexit.

It would have been easy for them to make non-committal statements about non-interference in other countries’ political affairs and move on. Instead, the Chinese leadership ensured that the “Remain” campaign was able to make the case, accurately, that none of the major Asian economies want to see the UK leave the EU. While this had little public traction, it helped to demolish a crucial Brexiteer argument that a world beyond Europe was salivating at the prospect of free trade deals with the Brits.

According to the “China Wins Brexit” camp, this public positioning was either a ruse or an act of politeness. Privately, the Chinese government was supposedly rooting for Brexit because it would make the EU less influential, weaken the West, leave China’s assertiveness in Asia unchecked, and increase the opportunity to “divide and conquer” Europe. This argument fundamentally misunderstands the entire orientation of Chinese strategy towards the EU, and the UK’s very particular role in it.

2) China, along with Japan and India, sees the UK as the best gateway into the EU single market for its growing investments.

While other EU member states were ready to block Chinese investments in various sectors on national security grounds, the UK has remained a remarkably unrestricted environment. Although often linked to David Cameron and George Osborne’s “golden era” push in UK-China relations, the British disposition to investment openness long predated them. The UK is now the largest European recipient of Chinese FDI and there was every indication that bigger Chinese commitments were on their way. Unless a deal is secured that maintains the UK’s access to the single market, however, those bets are off and Chinese investment plans will be rendered far more complicated. The economic uncertainty ensuing from Brexit is unlikely to be beneficial either, at a time when the fragile Chinese economy could very much do without additional complications

3) The UK has been China’s chief ally in its increasingly fraught relationship with the EU on trade.

In a context where Chinese industrial overcapacity is a matter of acute tension for European industry, the UK is one of the chief advocates for China to be granted market-economy status. London has been a major roadblock to EU rule-changes that would have permitted higher tariffs on Chinese steel. The UK was one of the only states to push seriously for FTA negotiations with Beijing. The departure of the UK will not make it easier for China to pursue “divide and rule” tactics on trade policy — it will remove China’s single biggest ally and tilt the balance of intra-EU politics on in favor of those advocating a tougher stance. The greater ease of concluding a bilateral FTA with the UK further down the line does not even begin to compensate for the long-term impact on the pattern of economic relations with what is, until Britain leaves, the world’s largest market and — though some appear to be confused about this fact — negotiating bloc.

4) China has been a consistent supporter of the European project.

There is little doubt that China maneuvers to play states and groupings off against each other within the EU to influence policy outcomes in its favor and to strike advantageous bilateral commercial deals. It does not follow from this that China would be pleased to see a fundamental division of the EU itself, let alone its complete unraveling. Beijing has long wanted to see the EU function as one of the poles in a multipolar world. It does not view a strong EU solely within the framework of a “strong West” but as a balancing and moderating influence on U.S. power. European attitudes to China are believed to be more cooperatively disposed than U.S. attitudes, with the AIIB imbroglio only the most striking recent example.

A well-functioning EU is also seen as a source of stability and order, and a critical partner to China for managing a complex array of global challenges that go well beyond hard security (without excluding that either), whether in the realm of finance, regulation, infrastructure, climate, the environment, development or a litany of other areas. China has never been one of those powers that lazily caricature the EU as either ineffectual or overweening. Beijing is one of the most sophisticated external actors in working out precisely how the EU matters to its objectives, where competences lie, and how power works between member states and the EU institutions. China was disappointed when the push for an EU constitution failed. It has provided important symbolic backing to the euro, notably during the Eurozone crisis, a period when Beijing had ample opportunity to undermine the EU discreetly if that was its real objective. China is evidently not a communautaire saint and it is always ready to rebalance its political tactics as circumstances require. There have been ebbs and flows in how much Beijing seeks to transact through Brussels and how much through member states. But China has demonstrably identified its interest with the EU’s continued success — and not as a provisional, quickly adjusted policy, but a clear, well-embedded, long-term orientation.

Recent developments in the EU’s policies in Asia are a relatively small part of this big picture. Beijing was certainly not happy to see, for instance, the tougher EU statement on the South China Sea. But while Beijing certainly cares about the EU’s stance — for reasons of legitimacy if not enforcement capacity — the idea that this issue now trumps all other considerations grossly overestimates the salience of the issue in the broader context of Chinese strategy towards the European Union.

Other issues tilt both ways:

  • China doesn’t like “splittist” referendums succeeding. On the other hand, the demonstrably damaging impact of the referendum on the UK’s interests and the chaotic political aftermath has provided ample materialfor those arguing that democracy is a dangerous thing.
  • In theory, there are political opportunities presented by the fact that the UK may be pushed to develop closer ties with states outside the EU to shore up its economic and strategic position. But there is a country that looms larger than China in this respect: the UK may need to work even harder to demonstrate its transatlantic bona fides during a wobbly phase with Washington, where there are now serious questions about the UK’s waning value as a partner.

These issues will take clearer shape in the months to come. But the broader forces at play in the referendum are unequivocally bad from a Chinese perspective. If there is a revolt against globalization, China is its embodiment. A western world that is roiled by populism, hostility to trade and antipathy towards elite-led efforts to manage global order cooperatively is not a congenial place for Chinese interests. Part of the fear of the Brexit vote is that it is just the start.

All sorts of geopolitical developments distract and weaken the West, reducing its collective ability to stand up to Chinese assertiveness. Each and every time, there are “China is the winner!” articles published in the aftermath as if Beijing’s predominant impulse is anarchic pleasure at others’ incapacity, regardless of what the other costs might be. Most of the time, the answer is a far more complex mix of trade-offs. In this case, however, it is not even that ambiguous. China didn’t support Brexit before the vote and it doesn’t now. There will doubtless be a couple op-eds in Global Times and reactive quotes from Chinese “strategists” that make hubristic countervailing arguments. But if there’s one thing the Brexit vote surely taught us, it’s to beware glibly persuasive newspaper columnists whose interests are more bound up in political positioning than in truthfully identifying their country’s genuine long-term interests.

Response to Herald Review

This is a quick response to a review of my book that appeared in the Herald a couple of days ago. The author, Hasan Karrar, whom I don’t know personally (though he was one of the speakers for the launch at the Lahore Literary Festival earlier this year) does have a couple of generous things to say about the book, suggesting that “for many years to come, it will justifiably become the source of first resort for people trying to understand China-Pakistan relations”. But since it is a considered and extensive review, I thought it was worth addressing some of his points of critique. More importantly, there is an enormous need for additional work in this field, and I’m not sure that his concerns about the book’s omissions and its general approach always steer future researchers – or current readers – in a helpful direction.

The first angle of criticism is that the book’s contemporary focus “can be limiting”, because “working on the present limits archival research”. Unfortunately, for people trying to make sense of the relationship, working on the present is necessary. And even if we held off until the Chinese and Pakistani archives were opened, we would be in for a long wait – both countries are very reluctant to release crucial documents, even from the early years of the relationship, so we must draw on other sources.

Those sources are characterized very dismissively: “the author ends up relying on either official declarations and informants reluctant to disclose their identity or the deluge of information on the Internet”. Unpacking this, what he describes as “informants” are largely the officials who have worked closely on the relationship over the years, and whose “reluctance” to disclose their identity is a function of their current position. Anyone doing serious research on this subject is going to need to draw on interviews with these sources, while using appropriate processes to cross-reference and verify the information they provide. Equally, by the “deluge of information on the internet”, the reviewer presumably means to include all the contemporary reporting and analysis on the subject by journalists and other researchers. This, again, includes sources that are simply essential – there is a lot of excellent material on the China-Pakistan relationship that the best journalists and experts have been able to dig out. Does this still mean that the “actual workings of the state…remain obscure”? Of course; but we have to do our best to make sense of them, and drawing on interviews and other contemporary research is the only way to do so unless we want to wait decades for our answers.

The second critique is about comprehensiveness - things the reviewer thinks the book should have included but didn’t. Some of these would indeed be interesting focal points for additional research, including the impact of Chinese imports on local manufacturing, or a comprehensive overview of the stakeholders in Sino-Pakistani trade. A more detailed treatment of China-Pakistan relations in the 1980s could also be useful – this is probably the period that is covered in least detail in the book, with the exception of arms transfers, support to Pakistan’s nuclear program, and cooperation in Afghanistan.

But the reviewer would have benefited from using turns of phrase that are a little less absolute. We are told that there is “nothing in the book about the role Pakistan played in reducing China’s isolation”; the first decade of China-Pakistan ties and diplomatic contact in the 1960s and 1970s is “absent from [the] narrative”; Pakistan’s role in the opening of U.S.-China relations is “omitted”; there is “no discussion” of mining at Saindak; the book “does not cover” the free trade agreement; and what is traded between Pakistan and China “the book does not tell”. None of this is remotely accurate, as even a cursory glance at the index or a skim through the first few pages of the book would demonstrate. The suggestion that various topics might have been accorded lengthier treatments is reasonable enough, but claiming to potential readers that the book leaves them out entirely is extremely misleading. Similarly, the “comparative analysis” on trade and investment that the reviewer provides, and says the book lacks, is structurally identical to the one laid out in the economics chapter. Plenty of book reviews are, quite understandably, written from an impressionistic reading of texts rather than a close study. The bar is set somewhat higher, though, if a reviewer decides to make various purported “omissions” the basis of a critique of the book’s academic credibility. This sloppiness extends to some pretty fundamental points too - the reviewer claims that "the author demonstrates" that "China refused to come to Pakistan's assistance" in 1965. The author demonstrates precisely the opposite - that Beijing was willing to come to Pakistan's assistance, did extend important material support, and that it was Ayub Khan's decision not to take up China's offer in the manner it was extended. 

One reason that much of this early historical material is summarized rather than treated at great length in the book is that it has been dealt with extensively elsewhere – the writing on the first two decades of the relationship, for instance, as well as the opening of U.S.-China relations, and the book actively steers readers to the best of the work on these topics. The full story of Kissinger’s secret visit to China is fascinating, but also quite familiar by now, even to a general reader. More broadly though, the book is not a comprehensive history, nor does it purport to be one. “Limiting” though it may be, its focus is on the present day relationship and the factors that have shaped it – inevitably this draws on crucial historical episodes and periods, but not everything makes the cut. The early wars do, but when it comes to “people-to-people relations of the 1970s”, another supposedly egregious omission, I am afraid that I do not share the reviewer’s faith that if you “mention ‘Pakistan’ on the streets in China…you are likely to get a response from some elderly person who may recall the fraternity between the two countries from half a century ago”. This is perhaps informed by the reviewer’s mistaken belief that “the public in each country holds their counterpart in the other in high regard”, which is belied by opinion polls in China, and a basic acquaintance with how Pakistan is viewed there.

There are other points that are at best odd. The suggestion that the book suffers from an essentially “regional emphasis” rather than looking at global dynamics – and the U.S.-China dynamic in particular – is ludicrous. One could run the opposite critique – that the book is too heavily focused on how the China-Pakistan relationship has played into and been influenced by the U.S.-China relationship – but I genuinely struggle to understand how the reviewer could have reached the conclusion he did.

Finally, the reviewer is wholly unreflective about the use of Chinese language sources – a matter which the “sourcing” section of the book looks at in some detail. They are not an end in themselves. The simple problem in this case is that while Chinese language material in general is undoubtedly valuable for studying Chinese foreign policy, the material on the China-Pakistan relationship itself, insofar as it exists, is often actively deceptive. This is not always the case - the book draws, for instance, on an important journal article that reviews the Chinese foreign ministry's 1965 war archives (which the reviewer, based on his assessment of Chinese conduct during the war, appears not to have read). But this is research territory where there is a lot of misinformation to navigate. The reviewer goes so far as to say that the modest use (or “dearth”) of this material in the book “undermines claims to represent Beijing’s point of view”. In practice, if the goal is actually to represent Beijing’s actual point of view, this is not an area where the publicly available Chinese language material is generally the best guide, and an uncritical reliance on it is likely to lead to problematic results.

This may be one of the roots of the problem in the last section of the author’s review (though since he doesn’t actually mention any Chinese language sources that might have improved the book’s analysis, we can’t be certain). His description of Chinese foreign policy as essentially "multilateral" rather than "bilateral" in nature would be unrecognizable to most experts on the subject, unless they relied entirely on official statements. Ditto for the suggestion that China “is increasingly eschewing favourites, looking to build ‘win-win’ cooperation with every country” – entirely distinct from a Pakistan that “hopes for leverage against antagonists”. This is a fair characterization of Chinese foreign policy in the 1990s, perhaps, but not its current trajectory – a period in which reliable, friendly countries are starting to matter more to Beijing than they used to, and “leverage against antagonists” is increasingly important too. As China becomes an investing power rather than just a trading power; needs partners to facilitate its global power projection capabilities (including, for instance, overseas military facilities); and embraces far more openly the notion of strategic competition with the United States, Pakistan’s role in this new environment is certainly a matter that “future scholarship…will need to address”. The suggestions in the review, on the other hand, would lead researchers towards trying to predict the nature of China-Pakistan relations in the Jiang Zemin era.

The reviewer’s shaky grasp on some important aspects of the two sides’ contemporary relationship, and Chinese foreign policy more broadly, is evident in other places too. He suggests that “there is little indication that Pakistan will have any major role” in the Silk Road Economic Belt. If we are being generous, we will assume that the review was written before Xi Jinping’s landmark visit, in which the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor was dubbed a “flagship project” by the Chinese side, not only for the Silk Road Economic Belt but also as a bridge to the Maritime Silk Road. Indeed, one official privately describes CPEC as the most fully evolved set of plans to date under the entire “One Belt, One Road” scheme. This is no small detail – it is the difference between whether or not Pakistan has a leading position in Xi Jinping’s primary foreign policy initiative. The reviewer also states that “Pakistan is still not a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, where China is widely believed to be the steering member” – and that “repeated attempts to upgrade its observer status to full membership in the organization” have been “to little avail”. This misses not only how the actual decision-making process in the SCO works but the fact that full membership for Pakistan is indeed now on the table. 

In the end, the reviewer inadvertently reveals that he hasn’t quite caught up with what the “new geopolitics” in Asia actually are. He lists an assortment of developments in East Asia, many of them long-running ones – the security of the Korean peninsula, economic integration between South-East Asian nations and so on – and only notes in passing the potentially transformative set of developments to China’s west to claim (inaccurately) that Pakistan will not be a part of them. Beijing’s new foreign policy orientation, which sees a vastly ambitious set of plans across Eurasia, in addition to its longer-standing ones in the Asia-Pacific, may well reshape the strategic economic geography and security environment in the entire region, and Pakistan – for good and bad reasons alike – will be at the heart of its success or failure. Getting beyond the traditional study of China in East Asia to look at China’s growing role across the territory that stretches all the way from Xinjiang to the Middle East is going to be one of the major focal points for students of Chinese foreign policy in the years to come.  

Lastly, the review makes a running distinction between the book’s value for the “general-interest reader” and the demands that the “academic specialist” will make of it. While the book went through OUP’s usual peer review process, it is unapologetically written in a style that makes it accessible to a general reader – this is an important relationship that needs to be better understood, and by a far wider audience. The decision not to write a standard chronological history or attach sections of IR theory to the beginning of the text was quite deliberate, and I'm still not clear how the reviewer thinks these would have improved the analysis of the subject. The comparative framework he proposes, for instance, in focusing almost entirely on trade and investment relations, misses the entire nature of the relationship. His conclusion that "there is little indication [that] there is anything about China’s relations with Pakistan so far that could be deemed exceptional" appears to be derived from an assessment of the country's trade volume relative to the likes of Turkey, rather than looking at the value Pakistan actually has for China as a partner on strategic matters, which has been the focus of ties between the two sides for decades. 

For the most part, I am just grateful that anyone takes the trouble to write about my book at all, and a thoughtful critical review is generally far more useful than a breezy piece of cheerleading. But this is an error-strewn, and frequently misleading article, that consistently fails to adhere to the academic standards on which it holds forth. There are many genuine omissions and areas of weakness in the book, and a wide array of topics in the field that would benefit from further study, but reviewers and authors alike have to at least start by getting the basics right.