China's President Xi Jinping meets German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (not pictured) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on December 10, 2018. (Photo by FRED DUFOUR / POOL / AFP)FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images
President Xi Jinping during a meeting with German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Beijing in December 2018. Trade and investment must be on the basis of a level playing field © AFP

Dear Mr Xi Jinping,

I hope you don’t mind my presumption in writing to you about revamping EU/UK — China policy. You know far more about China than I ever shall, but after 37 years of working for the British and EU diplomatic services mainly on China, I know a little about how we view things.

And to be honest this Year of the Pig could be a bit of a snorter, if we don’t make a few changes to the direction in which things are moving. Still, I take comfort from the fact that the year of your birth, 1953, means that you are a snake of the water element. The Chinese calendar tells me:

“Water snakes are active, smart and they often work out ideas. However, they are emotional and their youth is full of changes; most of them leave their hometown in youth to develop elsewhere.”

Which seems about right, in the light of your being sent down to the countryside for six years during the Cultural Revolution, as well as your reform programme.

Anyway, back to the issue of your relations with Europe and the UK. With or without the US, Mr Trump, trade wars and Thucydides Traps, the fact is relations between liberal democracies and China have changed decisively.

It is not just that our political and value systems are increasingly different; so, too, are our economic systems. You are a good Leninist, so you don’t really believe all that stuff you put out in 2013 about “the market having the decisive role in the allocation of resources”. You want a state-led economy. Personally, I think that in the long run you might do better with a market-led economy, but, like you, I am no economist; and anyway, you are probably worried that the Chinese Communist party might lose power if you don’t control everything.

Another thing we have to accept is that the advent of new technologies is magnifying our differences.

In particular, technology means a wider definition of national security for both you and us. It means that a number of fields of trade, investment and co-operation (such as R&D) are going to be off the menu. We both have to be mature about this. I know that Huawei is a bit of a favourite of yours, but you need to look at it in the same way as you look at keeping our companies out of your critical national infrastructure.

So it is all the more important that we build up those elements where we can co-operate successfully, such as global health, climate change, humanitarian aid and development, peacekeeping and the UN, to name a few. Doing that will establish the trust between us that is essential for everything, including the trade and investment relationship.

Now forgive me if I make one or two slightly critical suggestions, out of the best of motives, because attitudes in Europe really have changed and you might want to be aware of that. Firstly, building our trade and investment has to be on the basis of a level playing field and there the onus is on you to provide one as soon as possible. Even the Germans are saying so.

Respect for intellectual property is another essential element in building wider co-operation and trust. I am afraid that also includes stealing our commercial secrets. If they played the game, the Europeans would agree with us that it isn’t cricket.

Nor, by the way, is taking Canadians hostage and infringing the rule of international law, even if you do have a point about setting up rules in which you have a greater say: much of the international governance system is in need of some revamping.

A couple of other things, if I may. One is interfering in our internal affairs, complaints about which are only going to increase if you persist in doing so. We are peculiarly attached to our values and systems (and rather more strongly attached than you might expect, so eventually interference will lead to a backlash even in Europe and the UK, which is not to either of our advantages).

If it is not too patronising, on respecting the rights of the Chinese people, I do think that it is in your own interests to honour the provisions of your own constitution. That would be good for the Communist Party, the Chinese people and international relations (a 50 per cent increase on your “win-win”).

Honestly, we Europeans don’t seek to change you, but we do seek a more balanced relationship.

That’s the basis upon which Europe and the UK will approach you. Please don’t trash this opportunity for a reset of relations. You have been very good at “divide and rule” in the EU (of course, not quite up to the standards of the UK, although we have only managed the “divide” bit), but in the longer term that is not in your interest and it rather goes against the “shared future of mankind” theme of all your speeches.

And who knows, if you can successfully manage a mature, balanced relationship with Europe and the UK, it might provide an example for your dealings with the US. Mr Trump won’t be there for ever. He is likely to leave office a long time before you do. One of the disadvantages of democracy is that he can’t abolish the two-term presidential limit.

Yours sincerely,

Charlie Parton

Charles Parton is associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute, a think-tank, and an adviser to the UK House of Commons select committee on foreign affairs

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