A few weeks ago, at the height of the coronavirus crisis in Britain, a group of conservative MPs decided to form the China Research Group (CRG) to promote “fresh thinking” about how Britain should respond to the rise of China. The group is led by the chairman of the British parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat. MERICS had the opportunity to talk to him:
Could you tell us briefly about the purpose of this new grouping, including who its members are and if it has any specific political line?
The group wants to help people understand better a very important international partner and rival, China. Policies being made by Chinese officials today are having a very important effect on the UK. The CRG was set up to help inform a debate so that people can make better decisions on the implications for our trade policy, our defense policy, economic policy based on the facts. We want to work as a sort of network and closely cooperate with other research houses. And we are actually sharing information freely with any other political party as well.
Five years ago, Britain was celebrating the so-called “Golden Era” of UK-China relations. Since then, and since the coronavirus outbreak in particular, the mood seems to have been changing. Why is this?
I think that what the coronavirus crisis has done is it has brought home very clearly the reality of importing norms that are not those that a western democratic country would be used to. The levels of state control and silencing (…) is not something that we are used to seeing in the UK. For many years that didn't really matter because we were importing low value goods from China and it didn't matter. But nowadays the dependency on China and therefore the dependency on a system that is so much more fragile than ours because of the level of deception embedded within it, means that countries like the UK and Germany and France and others are now directly influenced by value sets that are not our own. (…) That wasn't as starkly clear as it is now until the Corona virus outbreak hit us all.
You voted remain in the UK's 2016 EU referendum. Do you hope that during the upcoming Brexit negotiations Britain would do better to try and remain a part of the EU’s foreign policy and security structures? And if not, how do you think post-Brexit Britain will fit in with the EU’s and the United States’ China policies?
The reality is that the EU is a club where you are either in or out. I don't think it makes very much sense for a country like the UK to remain part of elements of it, but I think we do need to reach out very quickly to find ways in which we can work together. However, the EU's foreign policy efforts have been extremely disjointed over the last 15 - 20 years. There hasn't really been an effective EU foreign policy. (…) Finding a new way to make that work is what we should be doing. And I do think we should be looking to work with other European powers on areas that we are supportive of.
How would the US fit in to this?
The US is an essential partner to international cooperation and we are going through a very unusual time in the US at the moment. (…) But the reality still is that the United States’ leadership amongst democracies around the world has always been extremely important, and I look forward to working with the US as much again. (…) US intellectual leadership in the China debate is just as important today as it always has been.
This is an edited excerpt of an interview Tom Tugendhat gave Thomas des Garets Geddes for the MERICS podcast series.