The recent return of former British prime minister David Cameron to frontline politics was a surprise to many. As part of a British Cabinet reshuffle, Cameron was appointed secretary of state for foreign, Commonwealth and development affairs by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who concurrently bestowed a life peerage on his predecessor, ennobling him as Baron Cameron of Chipping Norton.
Cameron has critics on all sides: For the left, he symbolizes the misery of the austerity years, when — on the back of the global economic downturn — a huge budget deficit drove his decision to slash public spending in the UK. The measures he and then-chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne undertook led to more than ￡30 billion (US$38.1 billion) in cuts to social services, welfare and housing subsidies, with evidence showing that the most vulnerable in society suffered disproportionately.
For the Brexiteers, Cameron is a spineless cop-out who called a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, then — to paraphrase a notorious rant by one British celebrity — “scuttled off” into the sunset to put “his trotters up” when things did not go according to plan.
Now, less than two weeks after his return, another troubling aspect of Cameron’s tenure as prime minister has reared its head: his unabashed love affair with China. Following the emergence of footage from a September event in Dubai, which showed Cameron touting the benefits of Chinese investment in Port City Colombo project in Sri Lanka, questions were raised in the British House of Commons last week regarding the new foreign secretary’s role in the project.
Responding to calls from the opposition Labour Party to clarify who the “ultimate client” was for Cameron’s speeches, which allegedly netted him US$210,000, Minister of the Cabinet Office John Glen deflected, saying he could not answer for Cameron, but that the relevant processes had “been complied with” ahead of Cameron’s appointment.
Rightly unsatisfied with this evasion, Labour member of parliament (MP) Siobhain McDonagh accused Cameron of being a paid lobbyist for China Communications Construction Co (CCCC), the Chinese state-owned entity that delivered the project and has a 99-year lease on a large portion of the reclaimed land it lies on.
“He has been working for a Chinese state enterprise that was sanctioned by the US Government and blacklisted for bribery by the World Bank,” McDonagh said.
She was referring to actions taken against the CCCC by then-US president Donald Trump’s administration in 2020, mainly in response to the company’s involvement in the “militarization” of artificial islands in the South China Sea, and the World Bank’s 2009 debarment of the firm for fraudulent practices during highway construction projects in the Philippines.
Once again, Glen offered a mealy-mouthed response, saying he did not “recognize [McDonagh’s] characterization of the foreign secretary’s employment history.”
Among those who have paid even cursory attention to such matters, Glen is surely in the minority. A quick look at Cameron’s record reveals a disturbing track record when it comes to China.
As prime minister, Cameron heralded the dawn of a golden age of Sino-British relations, during a pint-sipping photo op with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) at a rural pub in 2015. Coverage of the chummy get-together turned the 16th century watering hole into a drawcard for hordes of Chinese tourists; a year later a Chinese state-backed property firm had purchased the inn.
While Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei is now persona non grata in the UK — as well as the US, Canada, Australia and many European countries — Cameron welcomed the firm with open arms. His reportedly cosy relationship with Huawei founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei (任正非) smoothed the way for a ￡1.3 billion investment in the UK’s telecoms infrastructure in 2012.
The nadir came during Xi’s 2015 visit when Cameron approved a deal to have a Chinese firm — once again, state-backed (are there really any others in China?) — build and own a stake in nuclear power plants in the UK. The decision was rightly described as “sheer folly” by the Guardian, with reactions ranging from dismay to outrage across UK media. A former advisor to Cameron called his pandering to Xi and Chinese business interests “a national humiliation.”
Following his resignation as prime minister in June 2016 — and three months later as an MP — Cameron quickly picked up where he had left off, attempting to establish a UK-China investment fund. In 2017 and 2018, he paid several visits to China, where he met Xi, then-Chinese premier Li Keqiang (李克強) and other high-ranking officials to whom he floated the proposal. At talks with Tu Guangshao (屠光紹), president of the Chinese Investment Corporation, China's largest sovereign wealth fund, Cameron pushed for an “anchor” investment for his proposed US$1 billion fund.
The plan eventually fell through, but while Cameron’s spokesperson has played the affair down, a July report by the UK parliamentary intelligence and security committee concluded that Cameron’s efforts might have been “in some part engineered by the Chinese state.”
Cameron’s defenders have blathered about hindsight being a wonderful thing. His administration’s drive for closer ties with China was the correct policy at a time when China seemed a good-faith partner, they insist. Even the more hawkish of British MPs have made similar claims. Speaking at a press conference in Taipei in December last year, the British House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee Chair Alicia Kearns repeated the view that we should not judge too harshly because it “made sense at the time.”
However, even if people accept this, Cameron’s continued championing of the “golden era” — which he also invoked during his visits to China — and push for closer economic ties with Beijing are recognized as anachronistic by all but the most deluded or self-interested politicians.
Most observers seem to be giving Cameron the benefit of the doubt by assuming he falls into the first category. Upon Cameron’s appointment as secretary of foreign affairs, Charles Patton, a former diplomat and China specialist, spoke of a “worrying” naivety on Cameron’s part. “I hope he has seen the light and formed a different awareness of China,” Patton said.
Former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan-Smith was less generous in his appraisal, expressing his astonishment at the return of “a man who appears to be so close to China even today.” Duncan-Smith has strongly criticized the prioritization of business interests with China over human rights concerns.
With concern over his Dubai speeches simmering in British politics, Cameron is set to face a grilling in the House of Lords. His representatives insist that the “contracting party” for the event was KPMG Sri Lanka, but Sri Lankan Minister of Investment Promotion Dilum Amunugama has cast doubt on that claim, stating that the decision to book Cameron was taken “by the Chinese company [CCCC], not the [Sri Lankan] government.”
Whichever view is taken, Cameron’s apologists would do well to remember William Blake’s famous aphorism in its entirety: “Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but foresight is better, especially when it comes to saving life or some pain.”
From the Brexit gamble to his unfathomable decision to place the UK’s nuclear power in Beijing’s hands — an agreement which has thankfully been cancelled — Cameron has demonstrated a singular lack of nous over which way the wind is blowing. Likewise Sunak, by wheeling out the former prime minister in the hope that his charisma and reputation would reverse the government’s flagging fortunes.
James Baron is a freelance journalist and writer based in Taiwan.
Palauan President Surangel Whipps Jr in a letter to an unnamed US senator on Feb. 9 said that China has offered to “fill every hotel room,” in Palau, “and more if more are built” if the small island nation were to break ties with Taiwan. The letter further claims that China offered US$20 million per year for the creation of a “call center” in Palau, a nation whose economy relies heavily on tourism. It is more evidence that for China, tourism is an economic tool for its political gain. Cleo Paskal, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, posted
Amid the intensifying Sino-US strategic rivalry, Beijing has become more vocal about its coercive “wolf warrior” diplomacy. Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) condemned the US-led “containment, encirclement and suppression of China” at last year’s annual National People’s Congress in Beijing. Xi went on to say that China must “have the courage to fight” in the face of complicated changes at home and abroad. Taiwan is still a very sensitive subject for US-China relations. Chinese Central Foreign Affairs Commission Director Wang Yi (王毅) emphasized that Taiwan was “China’s internal affair” and reiterated that “Taiwan is part of China” during his talk last month with
Beijing’s diplomatic offensive highlighted by Lin Tzu-Yao (林子堯) and Cathy Fang in a recent op-ed (“Beijing’s new diplomatic offensive,” Feb. 7, page 8) is nothing new, as were the authors’ unwarranted smears on Taiwan’s major opposition party. They peculiarly meshed together a wide array of talking points to try to put an innocent face on president-elect William Lai (賴清德), concealed behind the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) failure to manage cross-strait relations and ties with diplomatic allies. They also attempted to discredit anyone who dares to oppose the DPP’s imagination-based politics. It was most unfortunate that the authors deliberately misconstrued parts of Taiwanese
The China Media Group New Year’s Gala, which was broadcast throughout China and abroad on the eve of the Lunar New Year, featured an appearance by combat and armored troops of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Was this somewhat jarring segment intended more as a warning to the domestic audience or the international community? Either way, the inclusion of such a militaristic item in the midst of festive celebrations is quite in keeping with China’s global image. Last year marked a turning point in the course of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) growing power. Speaking of his government’s achievements over the past