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[Bookmark] An Interview with Tony Blair on How Japan and the West Should Engage China




Bookmark is a JAPAN Forward feature that gives you long reads for the weekend. Each edition introduces one overarching thought that branches off to a wide variety of themes. Our hope is for readers to find new depths and perspectives to explore and enjoy.


China’s National People’s Congress passed the Hong Kong national security law on June 30, setting off alarms and making headlines around the world. 


The new law has been seen by critics in Hong Kong and other countries as an affront to certain freedoms guaranteed to Hong Kong for 50 years under the treaty that set up the 1997 handover and the unique “one country, two systems” principle. Beijing’s action has further caused countries, including Japan, to openly appeal to China to reconsider its decision.


How should the recent developments in Hong Kong be interpreted, and what should foreign powers do with regards to China?



The London Bureau chief for The Sankei Shimbun and JAPAN Forward sought answers from Tony Blair to help unravel these issues. Mr. Blair was the U.K. prime minister from 1997, when Hong Kong was handed back to China, up to 2007.


Mr. Blair expressed his disappointment in the recent trends of Chinese politics. He shared his analysis of the U.S., U.K., and European foreign policy, and his hope that, in the future, with the collaboration of foreign powers, China would evolve politically to create a free society where everyone can thrive. 


Excerpts of the interview are below.



What concerns do you have regarding the enforcement of the new Hong Kong national security law by the Chinese government?


The whole basis of the handover was a carefully-negotiated agreement, negotiated by my two predecessors as prime minister. 



The agreement was based on the principle of “one country, two systems,” which was a mutual recognition of the fact that Hong Kong was to be governed and treated differently. 


The problem is that, in recent times, the basis of that agreement has been undermined, and the Hong Kong national security law gives the mainland government of China powers that are rightly worrying the people of Hong Kong and seem inconsistent with the agreement that we made in 1997. 


We were very confident at the time that the “one country, two systems” would be adhered to. But in recent times that confidence has been eroded.



At the time, did you anticipate that circumstances in Hong Kong would result in a situation like the current one?


No. We believed the Chinese government would keep to the basic agreement. And actually, for a long time, they did. 



But what has really happened is that the path of China politically in these last few years has changed. [It] has become more authoritarian, with the Chinese Communist Party reasserting its control in a way that causes anxiety to not just the people in Hong Kong, but people more broadly.


RELATED STORY: [Bookmark] INTERVIEW | Former Governor Chris Patten Worried About Hong Kong’s Future



On July 23, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned, “If the Free World doesn’t change, Communist China will surely change us,” and appealed for the democratic nations to unite and challenge the threat of China. How do you evaluate Mr. Pompeo’s speech?


I think Mike Pompeo’s speech reflects reality. The U.K., Europe, America, Japan, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, India — all of us have the same issue. And it is important to stress, it’s not an issue with China being a powerful country. China should be a powerful country. It’s an issue with the developments of the past few years under President Xi [Jinping], and that’s going to be a problem for us.


Mike Pompeo’s speech simply exposed that reality. I do think it is very important that we continue to engage China in the areas where we need to: climate change, the global economy, how we handle this global pandemic. There will be areas where we are in confrontation, and areas of competition, but we need to reserve some space also for cooperation.




How do you evaluate U.S. policy towards China?


One of the things that COVID-19 has done is that everything that was present before is present after, but accelerated. 


One of those things is that China and America were already moving to a position of greater hostility, but that move is now being greatly accelerated. For the foreseeable future, American-Chinese relations will be very difficult, and that will be a huge complicating factor for the world. 


This is, by the way, one of the few points of bipartisan agreement in the U.S. So, whether it is President [Donald] Trump or President [Joe] Biden, this will be maintained, I think.



What do you think the dispute between liberal democracy and communism will be like in the future?



Well, I think it all depends on what happens in China. The Chinese people are smart, capable, they are creating some of the best technology in the world. Their middle class is growing. What China has achieved over the last decade has been remarkable. But, in the end, people want to live in free societies.


I think the Chinese leadership made a big mistake in suggesting that their system is an alternative system to Western democracy, and a superior one. First of all, it isn’t superior. And, secondly, in proclaiming that, [China] generated more anxiety.


The thing I can’t really understand about the present posture of the Chinese leadership is why they seem to be creating such anxiety among such a large group of countries, because I can’t really see how that profits China.



Do you think the debate between liberal democracies and communism will be affected by the U.S. presidential election if Mr. Biden wins?


First of all, no one knows what will happen in the election in November. But whoever wins in November, the U.K.-U.S. relationship will remain very strong. I think it will be important that the West stands up, not just for its interests, but for its values, because the West does have an alliance. 



Japan’s relationship with the U.S. and Europe, including the U.K. ー that alliance is not just based on interests, it is based on values, and on a democratic system that we all support. 


I think that whoever wins [in the U.S.], it will be important to strengthen that system.



Do you believe that it is possible to change communist China through the cooperation of liberal democratic nations?


I have no doubt that, in the end, China will evolve politically. The essence of today’s economy is creativity. And the people who succeed today are people who are educated, creative, open-minded, and innovative. Such people need a certain degree of freedom to thrive, to prosper.


Chinese people are very clever people. The Chinese system can’t really be compared to the Russian system — it’s a big system. I am sure there will be a lively debate going on inside the Chinese system at the present time. And I hope, in time, the Chinese people will get to the right balance of keeping their country moving forward economically, but also evolving politically.




During the Iraq War, you forged a special relationship with the U.S. administration of Republican President George Bush. The U.S. and the U.K. are working together with regards to Huawei, but the U.K. has not implemented sanctions against China over Hong Kong. What do you believe the U.K. should do following Pompeo’s speech?


The U.K. has always got to look after its own interests, and I know the government has made a very generous offer to the citizens of Hong Kong. I think, for the moment, the U.K. government thinks this is sufficient. But obviously we have taken a strong position on Hong Kong, and we will continue to do that.



The U.K. has brought the Golden Era to an end, banning Huawei from its 5G systems, and taking a strong position against China over the issue of Hong Kong. How do you evaluate the end of the Golden Era? 


There was an assumption that underpinned U.K. policy towards China through several administrations that, as China evolved and became stronger economically, so it would evolve and become more politically open.


But what has happened is that under the government of President Xi Jinping, China has continued to strengthen economically, but politically it has moved in a less open direction.



That, then, has a whole series of consequences. It means people become much more worried, for example, about Huawei and 5G, or about the Hong Kong basic security law. It’s not ostensibly these issues in themselves, but the way they relate to the change in the leadership of China and the Chinese Communist Party, which is really driving people towards confrontation. 


My view is that it is important for Britain to have good relations with China, and the Chinese people. We have many Chinese students that come to the U.K., and a lot of Chinese investment in the U.K. We are happy for those, as we are for Japanese students and Japanese investment. But, all of this becomes more difficult if the present leadership of the Communist Party in China continues to go down the road of more aggressive positioning and greater authoritarian control over their own people.


RELATED STORY: EDITORIAL | U.K. Joins Countries Banning Huawei 5G, and That’s Good for Freedom and Democracy



How do you expect U.K. and U.S. relations to change?


Well, the U.K.-U.S. relationship will always remain critical to the U.K. We are strong allies with shared interests and values. And that is why, on Huawei and 5G, we were always going to align ultimately with America. 



The American relationship was very powerful during my time as prime minister, and it should remain a critical part of our security and our foreign policy.



What do you think is the standing of the U.K. as a bridge between Europe, the U.S., and China?


I was passionately opposed to Brexit up to the U.K.’s leaving of the European Union. But this has now happened. So, it’s therefore more difficult for the U.K. to be a bridge between the U.S. and Europe because we are now out of the decision-making process of Europe.


Nonetheless, I think it’s important that we work towards closer understanding between the U.S. and Europe because, particularly in respect to China, in the end we have got to form one partnership. And that is not just about the U.S. and Europe, but of course includes countries like Japan.


We are tied by interests and history and geography and values to Europe, and America is our closest ally. It’s important that Europe and America stay together. 



I think that we will have to get through this Brexit negotiation, and we will then have to find ways that Britain can remain cooperating [with] and close to Europe, despite being outside the European Union. We can play a role for sure, and we should. But we have to be realistic that it is now more difficult.



On July 21, Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono expressed Japan’s interest in joining the Five Eyes. Do you think Japan should join the Five Eyes?


I think there is a strong case for it because we have a common interest in light of this new attitude from China. I think it’s certainly something we should consider.



How should the Japan-China relations develop in the future?


Japan faces all the dilemmas the rest of us face in respect to China, except, in a way, more so. Because you are in the same geographic region [as China], the economic ties are close, and the South China Sea is an issue that very directly impacts your own security.



I think what Japan has got to do is to continue to engage with the Chinese government where it can. But it will also have to be extremely vigilant, particularly on issues to do with security, and that includes cyber security. And it will want to work in close partnership with the U.S. and other allies. 


It’s hard to see what the future of Japan-China relations is going to be, but I think it really does depend on whether the Chinese leadership comes to a more balanced position of how they see their role in the world. If they continue to be aggressive, then it’s going to be difficult for Japan and for other countries.



During your time as prime minister, you advocated a third way and changed your policy to one of economic liberalism. Following COVID-19, what do you think of the global political situation?


My view, very strongly, is that the best place to build for the future, politically, is the center — the center ground of politics. I think the move to the populist right and the populist left in the West has been a big mistake. 


COVID-19 is going to mean that we have to have a government that is sensitive to the way the world is changing in order to deal with the inequalities within our society, and to recognize that we are living through a technological revolution.



The 21st century technological revolution is every bit as deep and important as the 19th century industrial revolution. It requires the politicians to understand how we harness this technology revolution for the common good.


[That] is the biggest challenge, and the problem with a lot of Western politics is that the right wing wants to go towards economic nationalism and anti-immigration, and the left wants to go towards greater old-fashioned state control, and tax, and spending.


In my view, neither extreme really meets the central challenge: how do you reform systems? How do you prepare for the digital economy and all the changes that it is going to bring? And how do you educate all our people so that they are able to survive and prosper in a world of change?


All COVID does is make it all the more important that we prepare our countries in this way. COVID-19 poses a huge challenge in healthcare terms, as you can see with what’s happening in Japan now. But it’s also exposing changes that we are going to have to make in our society and economy in order to survive into the future.



(Read the interview in its original Japanese presentation, here.)



Interview by: Kazumasa Bando


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