Something remarkable happened yesterday. The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, having arrived in the UK the evening before, chose to meet a group of MPs before holding talks with the Government. Even more remarkable was the fact that the MPs and members of the House of Lords were drawn not just from the Conservative ranks, but also from Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP. The issue that had brought everyone together was China.
The irony is that the meeting took place at the same time as the much-vaunted Intelligence and Security Committee report on Russian interference in UK elections was published.
Yet for all its apparent revelations, the truth is that we have known about the threat from Russia for some time, and the West has been united in its condemnation. There may be some specific lessons to be learnt. But the idea that, following our strong response to the Skripal poisonings, ministers’ denunciation of Russia’s attempt to manipulate the 2019 general election, and the imposition of sanctions on the Putin regime we are somehow failing to contend with the Russian threat is absurd.
In any case, staring us in the face is a far greater threat: China.
Too often in past weeks, the issues around Huawei, human rights abuses of the Uighurs, and potential Magnitsky sanctions on China have been treated as a Tory psycho-drama, yet nothing could be further from the truth. The serious concerns about Beijing are shared across the political divide, and the Pompeo meeting showed that.
The issue of China and its totalitarian government has over the past few months also become more stark and more urgent. Across a range of issues, Beijing’s behaviour has broken all international norms. Its imposition of a new security law on Hong Kong, contrary to the Sino-UK agreement, allows the Chinese security services to seize people they disapprove of and try them, very unfavourably, in China.
To that we must also add aggression in the South China Sea and more and more belligerent threats aimed at Taiwan. Persecution of Christians, Falun Gong and the Uighurs are enormous human rights abuses and have been ignored by governments across the free world, in their pursuit of trade advantage and Chinese investment.
While the UK has begun to toughen its position, government after government has in effect kow-towed apologetically. A picture of the Chinese regime, all powerful at home and aggressive abroad, is enough to leave Western governments fearful of upsetting them.
Yet there is another way to see China, one that allows us to chart a more determined course.
China has for over two decades succeeded in growing its economy at incredible rates by opening its markets, in turn sucking in investment from the West. This has resulted in the lifting of living standards for large swathes of the population, and simultaneously creating a significant middle class.
While the economy grows, many of them accept totalitarianism. The vast majority of Chinese people have always been ruled by communist governments anyway, so recent improvements in their living standards make such control all the more normalised.
Yet over the past few years that relentless growth has begun to stutter. Great plans to create a first world economy more technologically advanced than the West have stalled, exemplified by China’s dependence on US-designed microchips. The country still lags 10 to 12 years behind in areas like this.
Furthermore, hi-tech Western companies are more reluctant to leave themselves at the mercy of industrial espionage, which has so characterised China’s determination to catch up.
The regime has, meanwhile, become ever more wary of dissent. As one Chinese dissident put it to me, the severity of the crackdown is not a sign of strength but of growing insecurity. The worry for China is that Hong Kong’s demands, like some kind of infection, spill onto the mainland.
Which brings me back to the Pompeo meeting. What struck me most was the sense of agreement around the room – we are not engaged in Sinophobia, and we do want to engage with China but Beijing cannot be allowed to set the terms. The terrible human rights abuses, the disregard of the rules governing the free market and the aggression against its neighbours have to be called out.
And just as in the case of Russia where, contrary to the ill-informed perspective of America’s critics, Washington has been robust in its treatment of Putin, what came out loud and clear from the meeting was the desire of the United States to work with its friends and allies, particularly with the UK. For if we are to ensure that our hard-fought liberties and freedoms are not to be trampled on and the terrible lessons of the past are to be heeded, we need an alliance of the free world and urgently.
Iain Duncan Smith is a former Conservative Party leader