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 the fourth largest economy on earth will quietly delight the Chinese, as they smile their welcomes for the Man of Prudence.
But it would seem imprudent for Brown to make such a “next few years” declaration. It may have been only a holding statement, pending the outcome of the US elections and possible changes, if not of policy then of foreign emphases on the part of the new administration. But the British commanders have been telling Whitehall for some several months now that the so-called Taleban are not the same as the Taleban of old. Academic commentators often use the label “neo-Taleban,” to describe disparate groupings—united perhaps by ideological links with al Qaeda, but scarcely directed by Osama bin Laden from a nearby Pakistani cave—and certainly united in a desire to drive out the coalition forces they deem as occupiers. They are not otherwise united, but are disparate groups, and the British commanders would like to negotiate with some of them, and even see the wisdom of accommodating some of them in a government of national unity. It could not be, in any case, more disastrous than the Karzai government that unsuccessfully governs the enclosed emirate of Kabul.
But this is where Brown will miss a trick: the real problem with the neo-Taleban is the same problem as with northern Pakistan. As the British learnt in the days of the Raj and Kipling, the “border” between the two countries does not really exist, and there is a fierce Pashtun ambition for recognition on both sides. This has found curious resonances within the Pakistani intelligence who often covertly support the neo-Taleban and the “lawless tribesmen” of northern Pakistan; and, certainly, the guerilla capacities of the Pashtun fighters intimidate the conventional Pakistani military. In a sense, the problem of Afghanistan is linked to the problem named Musharraf in Pakistan. His determined hold on power has also seen an inability to seek the inclusion of northern tribesmen and opposition parties alike. The curiously myopic “fix” devised by the western powers—that some form of gerrymandered unity between Musharraf and Bhutto would sort the mess—must have astounded the Chinese by its simplistic nature.
But the Chinese, despite their longstanding friendship with Pakistan, are quite ruthless enough to cut Pakistan out of their equations. Discussions to exchange frosty relations for positive economic co-operation with India have begun well—the Chinese discerning that India will be more important in their future than Pakistan. If Brown could promise the Chinese increased access to European markets—despite the fact that he is a laughing stock in Europe for his clumsy late signing of the “constitutional” treaty—and named Chinese withdrawal of support for Pakistan, Musharraf and the Pakistani intelligence community as a price, the Chinese would do it.
Afghanistan and China are linked, but I doubt that the Brown roadshow has quite fathomed these links and their possibilities. The one-scheme-at-a-time prime minister will have to learn the three dimensions of foreign policy. The Chinese claim that they themselves are still learning to deal with a brave new world, but they will likely view Gordon Brown as the beginner from Britain, accord him all public respect, and smile into their cups of tea as the prime ministerial jet takes off for flood-soaked Britain.