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Book Review: Turning to Face the East: How Britain Can Prosper in the Asian Century Liam Byrne

Ford, G. (2013). Turning to Face the East: How Britain Can Prosper in the Asian Century by Liam Byrne, Asian Review of Books, 14 October.

Liam Byrne was the youngest of Gordon Brown’s Cabinet Ministers in 2008 when he became Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and was most famous for the note he left to his Liberal successor David Laws after Labour’s defeat in 2010: “Dear Chief Secretary, I’m afraid there is no money. Kind regards — and good luck. Liam.” A positive gift for Coalition propaganda. Now he’s turned his hand to U.K.-China relations with a book subtitled, How Britain can prosper in the Asian Century.

Byrne retells yet again that the West doesn’t understand the East, and points out that the Western “crash” has re-set the global balance of power. The U.S. is in decline if not yet retreat, while the European Union is a world power with a great future behind it. In contrast, China is unstoppable and is set to become the globe’s greatest market.

The question is: how do we get on board? Byrne’s answer is deceptively simple. Currently Britain is too much bound up across the Atlantic and Channel. We shouldn’t try to get by with old allies, but instead fast forward to new ones. After all, Beijing will forgive and forget the consequences of British colonial history as we move with alacrity to throw our lot in with China.

Then, we open China up trading our knowledge and expertise in social protection for market access, enter into a partnership for innovation and accept that increasingly in Britain “Made in China” will be married to “Owned by China”. The game is less manufacturing and more services: finance and law, health and education. Byrne claims Britain is not yet irrelevant, that culture will carry us through and the UK can innovate its way to success.

It is a tough call as to whether Turning to Face the East is brave or foolish. It does suggest that if Byrne understands something of China, he doesn’t share the same understanding of Europe. He talks of Obama’s Pacific pivot, but that’s more to parry Beijing than embrace China. Washington’s economic priority in Asia is to conclude the Trans-Pacific Partnership Free Trade Agreement (FTA) that is seen by many as threatening China economically as much as the Seventh Fleet does from a security perspective. In Europe, the future is the US, as Brussels throws its eggs into negotiating an FTA with Washington while rebuffing—albeit politely—China’s offer of a Comprehensive Partnership.

Worse Byrne is in denial about Britain. We are where we are in Chinese eyes as part of the E.U., not as the remnants of yesterday’s Empire. If Europe is to do anything with China, it’s together, not separate. The direction Byrne maps out has serious merits, but this road less traveled requires for passage big guns rather than peashooters.