From the TUC

More Mandarin, please!

25 Nov 2013, by in Economics, International, Politics

With apologies for late posting, I attended an excellent meeting at the RSA last Wednesday, to discuss a new book of essays, ‘Influencing Tomorrow’, co-edited by the Shadow Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander, and the Director of the European Leadership Network, Ian Kearns.

The book addresses a wide range of foreign policy challenges and, as regular Touchstone readers might have guessed, I was keen to ask explore the issue of China. After both Douglas and Ian had spoken, there was time for questions, so I bowled a simple ball: did they think that more British schoolchildren should be taught Mandarin?

Douglas gave a very full answer. He said that if we were to look at the population and GDP figures in 1800, we would see that what is happening with China’s rise is a return to a situation that pre-dated the industrial revolution. Asia is not rising to pre-eminence, it is returning to pre-eminence; in just a few years, for the first time since the reign of George III, the largest economy will be neither a European nor a North American economy.

Douglas went on to quote a recent discussion in the Financial Times, reporting that, according to some, the first decade of this century could be summed up by three words: “war on terror”. The FT described an alternative perspective; those three words could be replaced with “Made in China”, such is the growing influence of that country.

Douglas argued that the UK government had too narrowly focused on trade and a bilateral relationship with China, rather than seeking multilateralism. In fact, this hasn’t worked. Douglas said that effective trading relationships were more likely if they were embedded in a broader cultural, educational and linguistic interaction.

I was heartened by this response. Earlier in the discussion, Ian had spoken of hard power in foreign policy terms, as in military might, but also soft power, as in diplomacy, influence and culture. To this, of course, we must add economic power. It is a simple fact in the globalised world that, the stronger our economy, the more seriously we will be taken by other countries, yet a strong economy is not the whole story. One of the essays in ‘Influencing Tomorrow’, ‘Making Britain China-proof’ was written by Mark Leonard of the European Council on Foreign Relations. This notes that Germany, more than any other European country, has turned around its economy, politics and foreign policy to face the new China.

How is it that Germany always seems to get this kind of thing right, while others struggle? Leonard says that Germany sees both the Atlantic alliance and the EU as valuable platforms for taking advantage of Chinese economic opportunities. And, of course, Germany has developed the industries that can really make their mark in Asia, from more traditional manufacturing to cutting edge green technology.

By contrast, Britain currently exports only £50-£60bn to China – just three per cent of the UK total and a quarter of the exports to Ireland. This is less than a seventh of Germany’s total. Mark Leonard’s essay quotes both David Sainsbury and Liam Byrne as offering industrial and regional policy suggestions to build the economic relationship with China and all are worthwhile. The TUC will make its own contribution to this discussion in a new report to be published early next year. 

But our report will also show that economics is just one part of the story. Understanding the way the Chinese see the world is also vital. I have been learning a modern European language for six years and I have experienced what others have said, that to really understand another country’s culture, you have to speak their language. If this is true of Europe, it is surely true of China. More Mandarin, please!