May 19, 2021 - 11:48am

In theory, being Foreign Secretary is a big deal. In practice, it’s a ticket to obscurity because the domestic agenda commands 99% of our attention.

It’s even harder for a Shadow Foreign Secretary to get a hearing — which is a shame because the current incumbent, Lisa Nandy, has some interesting things to say.

She said some of them in a seminar hosted by the Onward think tank yesterday evening. The topic was the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) — the humongous infrastructure programme which has massively extended China’s influence around the world. 

Nandy did not mince her words. She stated that China’s economic model — involving market-distorting practices, over-production and dumping — has had “appalling consequences for people in this country and across the world.”

She’s right, of course — but it’s surprising to hear such language from a senior Labour politician. The contrast to the upbeat globalism of the Blair era is marked. Indeed, Nandy comes across as something of an economic nationalist — at least compared to the neoliberal orthodoxy that has held sway over mainstream British politics for decades now.  

Lisa Nandy is not the new Donald Trump, but she’s certainly awake to the fact that the flow of cheap Chinese exports is not an unalloyed blessing. The same goes for Chinese investment in capital projects around the world.

It’s not just cash-strapped developing nations that are taking the new red gold — but also, as Nandy points out, various British concerns including our nuclear new-build programme and even some British local authorities. 

Her Conservative co-panellist was Tom Tugendhat, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs select committee. He too took a hardline on China — though his particular angle was that the BRI “is a con” and that that it has “failed and will continue to fail.” In a 21st century global economy, Tugendhat believes that “mercantile colonialism” is doomed and that the fall out will come at “huge expense” to the Chinese state.

However, he warns that this is not good news for us either. An unsustainable economic model makes for a more dangerous and less stable China. The West, Tugendhat argues, must be ready to provide an alternative source of investment capital not only to developing nations, but quite possibly to China itself.  

The third panellist, Rana Mitter of Oxford University stressed that not all BRI projects were failures. However, whether they succeed or not, there is a “path dependency” effect whereby countries become locked into long-term relationships with companies that ultimately answer to Beijing.

Of course, it’s not for western governments to tell other nations who they should partner with. However, as all the panellists agreed, the West should at least provide governments around the world with a choice. If, for vital investment needs, the choice is China or nothing, then we’re in no position to complain about the outcome.