The UK’s dependence on China for products and, worryingly, the systems on which we rely and which in time will run so much of our lives is only now becoming apparent. I can recall only too well how the Cameron government made the strategic decision to look to China across a range of areas, calling this the "golden era" while concerns about the political direction of China under President Xi Jinping were carefully glossed over.
In this, the UK was not alone. Country after country saw in the easing of access to China an opportunity to tap into resources, cheap production and new markets. The free world behaved exactly as the Chinese government assumed it would, running helter skelter to do business while turning a blind eye to the concerns about Beijing's real strategic ambition. The stock answer was that the openness and free trade would change China, making it more reasonable.
This triumph of hope over experience is even now being broken on the wheel of President Xi Jinping’s strategic ambitions, yet still voices from the establishment try to minimise these concerns. In fact, while the free world has beaten a path to China’s door, China has been busy implementing strategic plans to dominate global markets, massively influence the developing world and advance its territorial ambitions against its neighbours.
Besides Huawei and 5G, nothing exemplifies China’s influence over the UK better than the UK’s energy policy. The Government has a plan for the UK to be carbon nuetral by 2050. However this does not seem to have been thought through sufficiently. Let's take battery-powered buses. China has strategically positioned itself to reap the rewards of such a move by becoming the world's largest producer of batteries and their special charging systems. The pressure to go electric in the UK means both central government and local government are queueing up to strike deals with vast Chinese battery companies, giving China billions of pounds and increasing our dependency.
Once installed, these batteries also pose a security risk. Senior industry experts say batteries can contain a "backdoor" which means the producer is able to immobilise thousands at a time with the touch of a button. With the Government still unsure about Huawei's involvement in 5G and without a strategic plan for China, local authorities and others are about to make the UK even more dependent.
Worse, much of what we use needs rare earth metals to function. These are critical to a range of devices including smart phones, computers, LEDs, catalytic converters, electricity generation and storage, and the batteries required by electric vehicles. They are also essential in several defence applications, including radar, the guidance systems of missiles and laser rangefinders. China now controls between 80 and 90 per cent of the world’s supply of rare earth metals and it also controls the majority of the global processing capacity.
Despite the Government constantly saying that there is no alternative, the UK is now a world leader in the production of hydrogen and hydrogen fuel cells which can both power vehicles and generate electricity. Businesses are making great strides in this area. Wrightbus in Northern Ireland is already making the world’s-first double decker hydrogen bus and Worcester Bosch has been developing ground-breaking hydrogen technology. Furthermore, the UK has enormous home grown tidal power potential, yet both tidal and hydrogen seem to have been brushed aside in favour of our growing dependence on large Chinese-run nuclear projects.
It is too easy to say that decisions on Huawei are driven by the USA, or by lobbying from some Conservative MPs – they aren't. There is a real need for a proper plan. I recently, with others from around the world, formed the Inter Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC). This organisation, including representatives from just under 20 countries from Japan to the USA, is supported by parliamentarians on both the Left and Right.
IPAC’s purpose is to bring the free world together to review our relationship with China. From the Uighurs' sytsematic subjugation and sterilisation to Hong Kong's trampled freedoms, we cannot afford to have so much of what we rely on in the hands of a Chinese government that cares nothing for human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
The members of IPAC are already persuading governments to end the extradition arrangements with Hong Kong now that the Chinese Communist government has taken over Hong Kong security in contravention of the Sino-British international treaty.
From Huawei to hydrogen and Hong Kong, we need to recognise the strategic threat China poses and, together with our allies, decide what we will do to reduce it, otherwise we risk repeating the failed lessons of the past.
First published in the Telegraph