Dr John Hemmings on Chinese Investment and National Security

Dr John Hemmings is the Director of the Asia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society. Last week, he spoke to Warwick Politics Society about the need to balance Chinese foreign direct investment with national security interests. After the talk, he also answered some of my questions in an interview.

During the talk, Dr Hemmings explained how Chinese investment could increase the political leverage China holds over other states. It seemed pertinent to ask Dr Hemmings if the UK government is doing enough to ensure that Britain’s national security is not compromised by FDI. He replied, “It is trying to, but I do not think it has got there yet”, suggesting “it would be good if there were an investment screening mechanism that is fully resourced and fully funded”. Pondering why progress has been slow, I asked, if he thought the antagonism between a government’s desires to protect national security and its aversion to intervene in the free market is responsible for the slow progress. He responded, “Absolutely”. “It is very difficult for British civil servants to think about restraining investment”. However, he is confident that Britain can deal with the problem if it has the “political will”. Dr Hemmings is right to suggest states should take caution when receiving foreign direct investment from these Chinese firms.

Given the focus on Chinese investment, I wished to know Dr Hemmings’ thoughts regarding the efficacy of Trump’s engagement with China. I asked, has Trump’s engagement with China forced it to alter some of its trade practices? He replied, “on the surface, yes. Xi Jinping has made some adjustments”. However, he emphasised that structural issues remain. For example, China continues to subsidise Chinese firms and to employ questionable intellectual property policies. I then asked, if he thought that Trump has been effective at dealing with China. He answered, “I think so”. He said it was fascinating the way Trump “is willing to put the entire bilateral relationship at risk if China does not change”. He said Trump wants to ensure China does not achieve technological and economic parity with the US because this would mean “the end of US hegemony”. I do agree with Dr Hemmings on this point. Despite all his flaws, of which there are many, I think Trump was right to take a firm stance with China on trade. A firm stance is the only way to force China to alter some of its unfair trade practices.

Throughout the event, the relationship between the US and China was discussed consistently. One student asked Dr Hemmings, what is China’s end game? He replied, “I think China would incrementally like to become the global hegemon” and wishes to “reorder the world in a way that is amenable to the interests of the Chinese Communist Party”. This is not surprising to hear from someone who describes himself as a ‘neoclassical realist’. He finished his answer by questioning how safe the world would be under authoritarianism. I am not entirely convinced that China does seek global hegemony. Of course, it is always difficult to determine the true interests of states. I do think China is concerned with its security and its position in the international system. However, I do not believe that the structure of the system compels China to seek global hegemony. I think China’s history is important. In particular, I believe Chinese behaviour is guided by China's memories of its imperial history and of its treatment by external powers in the past. Despite this, I do share his desire to avoid a world under authoritarianism.

After hearing Dr Hemming’s interpretation of China’s overall aims, I was curious about his thoughts regarding the relationship between the US and China. I asked him, is a conflict between China and the US inevitable? He said, "I think there is to some extent some inevitability built into the system”. However, he does “not think that conflict is inevitable because rising powers rise; a democratic China rising would be a different beast”. He said China’s “current regime is unable to provide the type of structural reform that the US would be happy with”. He then emphasised that regime type affects how actors behave and mentioned that it is more difficult to determine the aims of authoritarian states. He concluded by saying the current behaviour of China is reminiscent of other periods of history characterised by conflict. I disagree with the suggestion that there is some inevitability built into the system and am not of the opinion that conflict is inevitable. But, I would agree with the point raised about regime types. I do think conflict with China would be less likely were it a democracy.

Dr Hemmings gave an excellent talk. He is an expert in his field. He is right to raise concerns about Chinese investments. However, I think his interpretation of China’s motives is too sceptical. I also think he is misguided to believe that there is some inevitably for conflict built into the system. Yet, I do agree that the US and China will find it difficult to manage their relationship leading into the future.

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