David Cameron could scarcely have crouched any lower during this week’s visit to China. For his compatriots, the British prime minister’s enthusiastic self-abasement was, well, embarrassing. It did not change anything. Before Mr Cameron had boarded his flight home China’s state-controlled media was characterising Britain as an insignificant relic, of passing interest to tourists and students.
In so far as it might have served a broader purpose, the trip instead offered an excruciating example of the muddle of high-mindedness, mercantilism and subservience that often describes European responses to China’s rise. A continent mired in economic troubles is desperate to sell more to the world’s second-largest economy. But how to reconcile this with upholding a broader set of European values and interests?
Mr Cameron’s visit coincided with a dangerous escalation in tensions in the East China Sea following Beijing’s attempt to grab control of the air space above the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands. Its recent declaration of an expansive air defence identification zone marks another turn in a ratchet designed to wrest the islands, which China calls the Diaoyu, from Tokyo’s control.
Britain, though a permanent member of the UN Security Council, apparently has nothing to say on an issue that has significantly increased the risk of conflict in the region. After some grumbling, the government agreed to sign off on a joint EU statement criticising Beijing’s unilateral action, but Mr Cameron was determined the issue should not dilute the sales pitch of the 100-odd business leaders who arrived with him in Beijing.
The prime minister seemed equally reluctant to engage his hosts on human rights, and acquiesced when one of the journalists in his party was barred from attending a press event with Li Keqiang, the Chinese premier. Last year Beijing froze high-level contacts between the two countries after Mr Cameron met the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet. Nothing was to be allowed to spoil this trip.
It was left to Joe Biden, who flew in as Mr Cameron departed, to talk to Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, about serious matters such as military miscalculation in the East China Sea. Publicly, the US vice-president has walked a line between criticising China for raising tensions and restraining Japan from a precipitate response. Washington, though, must be well aware that the announcement of the air defence zone is as much a challenge to US power in the western Pacific as a provocation to Japan.
Britain is not alone among European nations in leaving burdensome matters about war and peace to the Americans while pursuing mercantilist approaches to China. When Mr Li visited Angela Merkel in Berlin this year the German chancellor sought to ingratiate herself by attacking EU plans to impose duties on imports of Chinese solar panels. German officials still look sheepish when reminded of the episode. The French are also apt to put business before geopolitics when they visit Beijing.
What marked out Mr Cameron’s trip was the egregious kowtowing. William Hague, the foreign secretary, had sought a more balanced approach – respectful of China, but self-respecting of Britain’s right to voice its opinions and promote its values. He was outgunned by the prime minister’s overeagerness for an audience with Mr Xi and the anxiety of George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer, to give a fillip to Britain’s flagging exports.
The curious thing is that governments know in their hearts that they gain little or nothing from such tactics. German business does well in China because it makes lots of things that the Chinese want to buy. Mr Cameron says that billions of pounds worth of deals were done as a result of his visit. The reality is that British companies will prosper only in so far as they have something to offer at the right price. Beijing, as I heard one senior European official remark this week, is not in the habit of rewarding weakness.
European governments now find themselves colluding in China’s divide-and-rule approach to the continent. By promising to advantage Germany or France, Beijing worries Britain and Italy and encourages smaller eastern European states to club together to start a separate dialogue. In theory, the EU has a “strategic partnership” with China.
It is an empty shell. The last thing Beijing wants is an EU that speaks with one voice. Such a Europe might run ahead of itself.
Mr Cameron’s trip paid homage to a view that there is nothing much European governments can do in east Asia save serve as marketing managers for their domestic businesses. They have neither the diplomatic weight nor the military heft to make an impression in the region. Best leave the heavy lifting to the Americans.
This approach ignores Europe’s fundamental interests – strategic and commercial – in helping to shape the nature of China’s rise. One path sees an assertive Beijing heading for an unavoidable clash with its neighbours and with the US. Another imagines a China that, for all its determination to gain acceptance as a great power, recognises its interests are best served by agreeing co-operative security arrangements.
Europe should have something to say about this choice. It remains one of the world’s richest, most powerful regions. It also has plenty of painful experience of what can happen when a rising power disturbs the status quo. Mr Cameron in future would do best to leave the globetrotting to his foreign secretary.
尽管英国是联合国安理会(UN Security Council)的一个常任理事国，但在显著增加地区冲突风险的这个问题上，英国显然无话要说。经过一些抱怨后，英国政府勉强同意签署欧盟(EU)一项批评北京单边行动的联合声明，但卡梅伦坚决不让这个问题冲淡随同他抵达北京的100多位商界领袖的推销攻势。
卡梅伦此行的特点是叩头叩得过火。英国外交大臣威廉?黑格(William Hague)曾寻求采取一种更加平衡的姿态：尊重中国，但也保持自尊，坚守英国发言和推介自身价值观的权利。但黑格的意见被否决了，因为首相迫切想要与习近平会晤，因为财相乔治?奥斯本(George Osborne)急于提振英国疲弱的出口。