«The Future of Diplomacy: The Case of the UK and China Professor Kerry Brown Associate Fellow, Asia Programme, Chatham House; Author of What's Wrong ...»
The Future of Diplomacy:
The Case of the UK and
Professor Kerry Brown
Associate Fellow, Asia Programme, Chatham House; Author of What's Wrong with Diplomacy? The
Future of Diplomacy and the Case of China and the UK
Chair: James Kynge
Emerging Markets Editor, Financial Times
4 June 2015
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10 St James’s Square, London SW1Y 4LE T +44 (0)20 7957 5700 F +44 (0)20 7957 5710 www.chathamhouse.org Patron: Her Majesty The Queen Chairman: Stuart Popham QC Director: Dr Robin Niblett Charity Registration Number: 208223 2 The Future of Diplomacy James Kynge Welcome, everyone. Thank you very much for coming. My name is James Kynge, I'm the emerging markets editor at the FT. I'll introduce Kerry in just a sec but let me just mention a couple of housekeeping items first of all. This event is going to be on the record, so any journalists in the room will probably be scribbling away. The event is also going to be live-streamed. You can comment via Twitter using #CHEvents.
It's my great pleasure to welcome Kerry Brown. He really needs no introduction in these halls. Kerry was for many years the head of the Asia Programme here at Chatham House, and he's still an associate fellow.
But sadly, he left these shores and went to Australia, and he's now the professor of Chinese politics at the University of Sydney. Also, he's director of the China Studies Centre.
We're here to talk about the question 'What's wrong with diplomacy?', which is also the title of Kerry's latest book. Kerry has written a great number of books. This one is a really good one. It's beautifully written. If I can quote from the dustjacket, Professor Rosemary Foot at Oxford calls it 'a clarion call for change in the UK's diplomatic practices'. So there's really a big topic here to get our teeth into today.
The dustjacket also goes a little bit further. Let me read out some of it here. 'Traditional methods of diplomacy are fast becoming antiquated. Secrecy, pomp and elitism have dictated the diplomatic strategy of the Cold War era. But in a digitized 21st century, inclusivity and transparency are values of increasing importance'. It sounds rather like a manifesto for a new FIFA. I wonder if you've sent a copy to our friend, Sepp Blatter.
Kerry and I are old friends actually, going back to our Beijing days – his early days in the diplomatic service. I promise not to give him an easy time today, but I must say for the record, Kerry, you were very unlike the stiff, uptight, buttoned-up UK diplomats that you describe in your book. You were in fact gloriously freewheeling with the information to us journalists, and sometimes you were gloriously indiscreet. I wonder if you ever wondered why you picked up so many journalist friends along the way. I can see several of them sitting right here.
Let me just kick off with the obvious question to you: what is wrong with diplomacy?
Kerry Brown Thank you, James. I think at a previous meeting I was at with you, with the FT a few years ago, someone – I think your boss – referred to you as a national treasure. But I think today we can see that you've become a World Heritage Site.
James Kynge I can see there's going to be a sting in his tail here.
Kerry Brown So it's wonderful to have you do this today, thank you very much. Indeed, we did know each other back in Beijing. The thing that I suppose we have in common is that someone said when they looked at this book that it was a little bit like reading something about media, newspapers. They run into the same problem because once upon a time, some of the people I work with initially remembered being in Beijing – or Peking, as they insisted on calling it – in the 1960s and 1970s, when there were no other real access 3 The Future of Diplomacy points. I think there was a Reuters journalist who had been put under house arrest – Antony Gray – in the late 1960s. Then there were a few people – it wasn't really an embassy then, it was a kind of mission, before it became an ambassadorship in the early 1970s. So really, China at that time was only accessible to diplomats and a very small group of businesspeople. It was pretty enclosed.
Now, if you look around, you've got an enormous amount of information, absolutely everywhere, about China, and the points of access are huge. So it sort of raises this question. We have this fairly traditional structure, these old modes of diplomatic engagement, and I think some of them – as I say in the book – for visas and for consular, you're always going to get British people and other nationalities having problems in places like China, so you do need that kind of hardware of diplomacy. But the political, economic and other modes are really more questionable. What is the function of these entities that exist – probably five or six now in China, embassies and consulates from Britain, and many others?
I started to think about, what could they do in an era in which, firstly, information and access, people-topeople contact, is so rich. In Britain now you have 100,000 Chinese tourists coming here a year. You have just short of 100,000 Chinese students. You have probably tens of thousands, not entirely sure how many, British people going to China. You have many daily flights to Beijing and other places across China. You have small and medium enterprises today. I saw in the Financial Times this incredible project in Wales by a Chinese investment company that is going to come and actually use British technology or British expertise to build this tidal wave kind of project. You even had last year talk – I think it's still going on – of Chinese companies investing in nuclear energy in Britain with a French partner. What an incredible alliance.
So this is a very different terrain, and yet we still have these sort of fairly remote, fairly difficult organizations to get access to foreign services and embassies, which you would think now had a very important role but they're quite difficult to get into. I mean physically – if you go to Beijing and you rock up at the 11 Guang Hua Lu, the famous address in the middle of Beijing, the British embassy there, it's not super easy to get in. What does it exist for? It's a publicly funded entity. It's meant to be serving people like us and yet it's sort of pretty inaccessible a lot of the time, although it does do a lot of different social media things.
So I thought, well, with these changes and with the erosion of access to China – the fact that it's so easy now – and with the fact that it's become more and more mainstream, this is a very good example to pose the question: what is the function of diplomacy in a modern, media-rich age of sort of hyper-accessibility?
I think the second thing is more –
James Kynge Before we get to the second thing, just let me ask you to take us back to what diplomacy was like. You write very evocatively about this in your book, when you joined in 1998 and then you went to Beijing in about 2000. There's one passage in the book where you meet one of your seniors at the FCO in King Charles Street, who informs you that nobody ever uses the internet. This is 1998. It's regarded with suspicion. There's hardly any computers around. This person says: the internet is like the Wild West, where only the foolhardy venture. Then you go to Beijing and it's also somewhat surreal. What was it really like in those days? It's not that long ago, only 15 years, but it is so different. Can you paint a picture for us?
4 The Future of Diplomacy Kerry Brown I think it was because a lot of people who were still active then were veterans of the Hong Kong handover generation. I think that's a particular kind of generation of Sinologists and Sinology that is less relevant now. I don't think it's relevant at all now. It's not to denigrate their amazing skills and knowledge, but that was acquired in the era of inaccessibility when, frankly, going to China meant, as a posting – right up until really the 1980s, maybe into the 1990s – that you had a very small pool of people that you could really talk to, and you really didn't know a lot about what was going on in society around you. People were serving there through the end of the era of Mao in 1976 – there's this famous story of the report that had been issued then, just after the death of Mao, saying the Gang of Four (under Jiang Qing, Mao's wife) will now be dominant and it will be a hard-life leftist government. I think we're all sort of a bit haunted by the fact that no one, not just diplomats who were there but even commentators outside, economists – not a single non-China-based economist or expert on China or Sinologist foresaw what was going to happen from
1978. In fact, when you read the immediate reports that have been made available now, or analysis in the years afterward, bit by bit it sort of dawns: wow, actually something quite important happened at the end of 1978. The reform and opening up and the marketization and all the big – the creation of the special economic zones. But we sadly missed that. We had the event and missed the meaning. So I think that shows that despite the incredible expertise and specialization of that generation, there were significant things that they were actually incapable of seeing.
I suppose the other thing is, it seems to me that the onus and the recruitment and the whole worldview of, particularly, the British foreign service – when I knew about it, but since leaving, since being rehabilitated in society – I sort of feel that it really doesn't look much at emotional currents. That's immediately sort of – as soon as I say it, I think, wow, what an extraordinary thing to say. And yet, in fact, in foreign affairs emotion is important. I think Christopher Coker at the LSE has just written this book about resentment in Chinese foreign policy. The fact that there are these historic resentments about the relationship with Japan, or all these issues about the South China Sea –
James KyngeAnd with us, with the UK.
Kerry Brown Indeed. We are the brand carriers of colonialism. So now I go to Beijing and I'm Australian. I even wear a tee-shirt. No, not necessarily. I kind of find that you have a different sort of conversation about Tibet, for instance, if you are from the University of Sydney than you do if you are from Chatham House in London.
This seems to me quite interesting, that Britain has that historic freight, the weight of that history.
So the fact that there's so much that is not particularly rational in the way that people think about foreign affairs, it seems to me therefore that we had a kind of assumption or a tradition or a mentality, until quite recently, of largely thinking in quite rational terms about foreign policy, as diplomats and bureaucrats.
You worked in a system and you think that people would be sort of thinking maybe strategically, in a very logical way. They'd be going through A, B, C, D, blah blah blah, until they got to some aim. Yet what evidence we see shows in fact people on the whole don't really think – they think with their emotions, or they use their emotions more than their more rational side.
So I never really felt that that was ever factored into analysis. It may be now, it may be completely different now. But it didn't seem to me that we particularly took care or note of that. It was mostly 5 The Future of Diplomacy something that we sort of slightly looked down upon. That's not the fault really of diplomats particularly;
it's the fault of politicians. In that sense, it's the fault of the people that elect them. There was a sort of traditional view of an organization like the Foreign Office, which was never really allowed by its political masters to try and think in a different way. We remember famously, when I joined in 1998-1999, the late Robin Cook and his idea of foreign policy with an ethical dimension. There was a huge argument about this and it was really kind of a stick to beat him with. It showed, in fact, that if you really thought about foreign affairs and diplomacy in a different way, it was very risky. You just would go therefore for the standard kind of rubric and that's fine – until, of course, in the 2000s, all sorts of problems came along, with the Iraq war and then the collateral from that, and the so-called war against terror, where actually the parameters of our thinking were not fit for purpose.
With China, as I argue in the book, this is particularly instructive because we have a sort of process of reversed asymmetry. You could say within a very short period of time, really about 15 years, China has gone from being a sort of weaker partner in this relationship to one now where the UK is not really that important. The UK figures in Chinese thinking because of its attractiveness as an investment destination.
It's a place where many young Chinese have become educated. Rather hilariously, the last two Politburo members who have been educated in the UK or have connections with the UK have ended up in jail. Bo Xilai, whose son was here, and then Chen Liangyu, Chevening-educated, now a prisoner in a Shanghai open prison, the ex-party secretary of Shanghai.
We have those links, and then I'm sure tourism is very important, but would the Chinese, after the handback of Hong Kong in 1997, think of the UK as being very geopolitically important to them? Would they think of the UK as being a core security partner? It would be very strange if they did. It will be interesting if the UK decides to leave the EU, how they reconfigure their relationship with the UK if it's not part of the EU. I know that's not likely.