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Responding to the Integrated Review 2023

How should the UK engage China on global challenges against a backdrop of 'polycrises'?

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The long-awaited refresh to the UK Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy (known as the Integrated Review, or IR) was published on 13 March, two years on from the first version. Lewis Husain and James Keeley from the Institute of Development Studies examine what it means for the UK’s relationship with China amid a challenging global environment

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From the Integrated Review to IR2023

The IR is the preeminent guiding document on the way the UK sees relations with China at a time of global instability and when relations between China and the West are at their lowest ebb in decades. The refreshed IR, IR2023, frames the UK’s policy towards China in terms of protecting national interests, aligning with others to protect collective values, and engaging with China where possible. Versions of this framing are now almost standard for Western countries and the EU as they rethink their relations with China.

Much has changed since 2021, and the government has refined its approach to the country. We have seen, for instance, increased sensitivity to Chinese engagement in critical national infrastructure and cyber security; growing concerns regarding supply chain resilience and critical minerals; and increased scrutiny of academia and its relations with People’s Republic of China (PRC) entities. The Australia, United Kingdom, United States (AUKUS) defence partnership to counter China in the South China Seas has deepened.

IR23 reflects this changing thinking, with a more substantive and detailed discussion of China. Critically, that includes an increased emphasis on diplomacy, dialogue and engagement.

The publication itself says that “IR2023 also includes a clear articulation of the principles that will underpin the UK’s approach to bilateral relations with China, in which the importance of dialogue and diplomacy is emphasised. Ultimately, the UK seeks to re-establish a stable, constructive and frank relationship that can both create better conditions for cooperation and underpin the kind of strategic dialogue required to prevent miscalculation and misunderstanding.”

This is an important step in recognising the multifaceted and complex relationship the UK needs with China in the coming years. Developing an effective approach to engagement and cooperation now requires an action plan, clear priorities, strengthened capacities, and resources.

The need for constructive engagement on global challenges

This is in an era of ‘polycrisis’ and interconnected global challenges which require collective action.

All but the most ardent China hawks recognise the need for cooperation with China on global problems, and IR2023 namechecks climate change and global health. But these issues get much less air-time than the security issues outlined above. What are the UK’s priorities? How should we build effective forms of engagement around them?

Forging a new kind of relationship with China that mainstreams serious global challenges will not be straightforward, but is necessary. We ask what is needed to re-centre such challenges in our thinking as we navigate the choppy waters ahead.

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly meets Wang Yi, China’s Foreign Minister, as he attends the Munich Security Conference. Photo: Simon Dawson/No 10 Downing Street via UK Government on Flickr)

Rationales for engagement

In discussions of China strategy, engagement and cooperation are generally an afterthought, summarised as something like ‘climate change and pandemics’, as in IR2023. But this ignores the complexity of a major set of issues where China is an important factor, and which need to be thought through.

China is vital to many significant global challenges, given its size, systemic importance, regional presence, and technological advancement. Examples include health and development challenges such as antimicrobial resistance (AMR), food insecurity, plastic pollution, and developing country debt relief; governing frontier spaces such as digital tech, the arctic, and space; and stability issues, including financial stability, peace and security, and fragile states. Over the coming weeks, the IDS China Centre at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) will publish blogs exploring some of these key issues.

For countries reappraising their relations with China, thinking in terms of three kinds of challenges can help clarify what we are trying to achieve.

  • Issues where China is system-critical, where progress cannot be made, or will be substantially diminished without China’s contribution. Examples include reducing greenhouse gas emissions, AMR, and biodiversity loss.
  • Issues where China is a part of the solution to challenges facing developing countries. Examples include debt restructuring, investment in LMICs, and technologies developing countries need to respond to climate change, including solar or drought-resistant crops.
  • Issues where it is in the enlightened self-interest of countries to have functioning relations. Examples include, nuclear proliferation, financial stability, peace and security, and regulation of new technologies.

Engaging with China as if the world matters

Geopolitical tensions should not trump effective coordination on global challenges that threaten humanity or the biosphere. And developing countries cannot be asked to choose between China and the West.

The world is becoming increasingly multipolar. China has expanded its role in the multilateral system, though not uniformly. It has also promoted new institutions and visions outside the existing system, most recently the Global Development Initiative. While these provoke wariness, dismissing them is shortsighted.

China was critical to the Paris Agreement and the recent successful negotiation of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework. It will inevitably also be important in shaping the successor agreements to the Sustainable Development Goals. Informed, grounded engagement on the kinds of global challenges outlined above is vital to make this a constructive process and to build consensus around viable responses to the crises humanity and the biosphere face.

Where now?

Relations between China and most developed countries are at a decades-long low. There are no easy fixes, and there are fault lines that risk destabilising relations further. What can be done?

There is a need in most Western capitals to articulate a clearer case for informed, strategic engagement, backed by clear priorities and strategy. This is not naïveté or accommodating China: as Jessica Chen Weiss says: “we have to try”.

The UK has many strengths. It is respected in development policy and practice, and in science, including biomedicine and climate sciences. It has a history of engaging China in international development, including through trilateral cooperation in third countries. This provides a foundation, and a basis of trust, but one that will erode if neglected for too long.

Jurisdictions such as the European Union and Australia are strengthening research and study of China. It is now time to seriously invest, recognising that China’s global impacts affect almost all areas of policy, and that UK capacity to engage must keep pace.

The IR2023 plan to double spending on China capabilities within government, including language training, is welcome. But capacities needed to support effective engagement are not limited to government. More is needed, including:

  • Funding for engagement on global challenges where China is a significant factor, including strengthening relationships with China, with third countries – and where possible with China in third countries – to contribute to the delivery of key global public goods.
  • A jointly-funded China research programme delivered through UKRI, building on previous successful collaborations, and supporting research on global challenges that need to be addressed with China.
  • A strategy to improve China knowledge and language training in schools and higher education institutions, including China-focused modules in a range of degree courses.

As the UK does this, aligning with other countries and actors with progressive approaches to engagement will be important.

IR2023 identifies China as an ‘epoch-defining challenge’. This is the moment to step up to the unavoidable but neglected challenge of appropriate cooperation with China, clarifying the benefits of doing so, mitigating risks, identifying clear priorities and entry points, and investing in capacities to deliver.

Images from UK Government via Flickr (see original sources here and here)

This article was first published as “Engaging China on global challenges: Responding to the Integrated Review 2023” by the Institute of Development Studies

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