Gordon Brown visited both Iraq and Afghanistan in December, and will visit China in the second part of January. He began visiting China only in 2005, curiously late for a chancellor of the exchequer who might prudently have been watching the rise of China as an economic superpower. Neither of his senior foreign ministers, the young Miliband and the acerbic Mark Malloch Brown, has deep China expertise—Brown having chosen the latter at least in part to help him prosecute his agenda in Africa. But it is the Chinese who are the big news in Africa, and in a way that resonates with much of Africa far more persuasively than the conditionality-ridden debt write-offs that are prudently and charitably—almost Calvinistically—extracted from the Brown bag.
There will be much to talk with the Chinese, but Africa will not loom large. China’s trading relationship with Europe and Britain and Chinese investment in Britain will dominate the “serious” agenda, but for the most part, this will be a “getting to know you” visit. The Chinese rated Tony Blair. He was seen as a moderniser, someone who fitted the Chinese image of the “Young Marshall,” and they understood his treacheries. They have an unformed but, at this stage, not fully appreciative view of Gordon Brown. Perhaps, they think, he is a chancellor who could not step up properly. They would not have appreciated his almost public intrigues to stay in line for the succession. That is unseemly and shows no style in the more brutal but hidden Chinese methodologies. But, as with everyone, Gordon Brown will learn the necessity of patience in dealing with the Chinese. The word is no longer “inscrutable.” Deliberately slow is the new Chinese style.
But the Chinese would have paid attention to Brown’s visits to Iraq and Afghanistan. Britain is slowly withdrawing from Iraq, but the pledge to stay in Afghanistan “for the next few years” would have surprised the Chinese, who have been concerned about foreign powers in that country since the Soviet invasion of 1979. Quite apart from old and possibly dated strategic concerns, the Chinese will wonder whether Brown actually means it. They know Britain cannot actually afford a long haul that will inevitably become more expensive. They watched with delight as their then antagonists, the Soviets, took a mauling in Afghanistan. Anything that further weakens an economic power that they have very recently surpassed to become…