UK Aid Helps Countries Stand Up To Chinese “Bullying”, Says Former DFID Chief Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Speaking At An Event On The Government’s Integrated Review

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Anne Marie Trevelyan recently hit the headlines with her open attack against China. She was speaking at the virtual conference of the Conservative Party on October 6, 2020.

Aid from the UK helps “those developing countries that are at risk of being … abused by the likes of China” – stressed Trevelyan. She argued that China helps other countries with the intention of robbing their assets and gain military advantage.

China also tries to control the national policies of the recipient countries, she underlined. Receiving development aid from the UK enable these countries to refuse China’s bullying tactics, she said.

The Backdrop

Anne Marie Trevelyan was the last Secretary of State for International Development at UK’s Department for International Development (DFID). This was the government’s arm to manage overseas aid programmes.

DFID has recently been merged with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) to form the new outfit  Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO). Prime Minister Boris Johnson had announced the merger in June 2020.

The FDCO started functioning in early September 2020 under the leadership of Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary. He is not responsible to take decisions about overseas aid, therefore.

The ruling party has justified the merger as essential for greater alignment between the country’s overall international objectives and development aid. However, there has been strong opposition to this merger. Especially as it happened without a process of consultation.

Activists and professionals from the development sector have been vociferous in their criticism. Former Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown also expressed their disapproval.

Do you think it natural for Labour Party PMs to oppose the move? The Conservative Party’s ex-PM, David Cameron, also termed the merger “a mistake”. It is also important to note that Labour Party politicians have not been pro-China at all,

The Connection Between The Merger And Trevelyan’s Anti-China Comments

To put development aid under the foreign secretary is to shift the focus from poverty alleviation to the UK’s other international interests. That has been the main point of criticism against the merger from the development sector and politicians alike.

Trevelyan, as the last chief of DFID, has been defending the merger ever since Johnson announced it. Her observations against China’s so-called arm-twisting tactics are in line with her earlier defence.

Combining diplomacy with aid will strengthen the UK’s development initiatives. That’s what Trevelyan had said in June. The October statement is in complete sync with that.

Raab also came out with a strong anti-China statement on the same day. He announced that the UK might boycott the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

Human rights violations of the Uyghur Muslims would be the reason, Raab said. Such a concerted attack against China by two spokespersons of the Conservative Party is not coincidental at all. A few months back, Johnson banned Huwaei from the country’s 5G network.

The UK-China Relationship: From Open Arms To Hostility

The souring of the UK-China relationship is both sudden and difficult to explain. In July 2019, Boris Johnson had been vocal about his support for a friendly relationship with China. That must still be fresh even in the proverbially short public memory.

Britain was the first among the G7 countries to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Headquartered in Beijing, this is a China-led initiative established in 2016. It is worth remembering that in this context.

Before Brexit, UK had been in open support of pro-China economic policies within the EU also. Equating this anti-China stance with the supposed rightism of the Conservative Party would be simplistic. It would also be factually wrong.

David Cameron and Boris Johnson have both spoken publicly in support of strong economic ties with China. Johnson had even described Britain to be China’s best friend in Western Europe in early January 2020.

Many have identified US pressure as the reason behind this turnaround on China. The UK is certainly more dependent on the US now. The uncertainties of UK’s post-Brexit status as it tries to redefine its position in the international arena is the reason behind that.

That, however, is not the only reason. Strong pressures from an extreme right lobby within his party have compelled Johnson to change his pro-China stance. His initial decision to welcome Huwaei into the UK’s 5G network faced strong opposition not just from the US. This lobby had been against the move also. 

The changing public mood in the UK about China in the wake of the COVID-19 situation has also been an influencing factor. China’s recent aggressive activities have made Britons wary of Chinese Intelligence.

China can create havoc by cutting down the supplies of essentials like PPE (personal protective equipment) and ventilators. That realisation has dawned. Public perception of China has changed sharply as a result.

China’s Contribution To The Situation

China’s military aggression in the South China Seas and the Sino-Indian border has not gone unnoticed. Especially since these drills took place in a situation when much of the globe is still reeling under the COVID-19 pandemic.

China’s recent Hong Kong crackdown has been particularly unpalatable to both the government and the people in the UK. The public perceives this as a blatant violation of the 1985 agreement by which the UK handed this former colony back to China.

The UK Is Not Alone

The West has not liked the openly aggressive stance that Xi Jinping has taken in response to President Trump’s China policy. Boris Johnson has certainly taken a sudden about-turn from being a self-declared Sinophile to a Sinophobe. However, he is by no means alone.

The US-based Pew Research Center has been tracking the global perception of China for a decade. Its recent report reflects that anti-China sentiments have deepened in an unprecedented manner during the COVID-19 times.

This study covers 14 countries with developed economies. Nine among the 14 reflect a sharp rise in adverse views about China. The countries are Australia, Canada, Germany, Netherlands, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, UK, and USA.

Ann Marie Trevelyan’s words about China bullying the countries that depend on its aid becomes a lot more credible against this backdrop. The general mood is not to delve deeper to do a reality check.