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Blair talks of effect of initiative on the world

By ANDREW MOODY | China Daily | Updated: 2018-01-25 07:05
Tony Blair [China Daily]

China's new era will prove to be of major significance for the rest of the world, according to former UK prime minister Tony Blair.

Blair said General Secretary Xi Jinping's report to the 19th CPC National Congress in October clearly demonstrated China's ambition to occupy a central position on the global stage.

"It indicated that China has the ambition to go now to the next level of development and authority, and this is of big significance to the world," he said.

In an exclusive interview with China Daily, Blair also said the China-led Belt and Road Initiative will have major global implications.

"This is a huge thing for China and, by the way, for all the countries that are going to be impacted by it," he said.

"I remember being at a conference in Xinjiang in about 2013 when I first heard of it and I remember thinking this is going to be really big and really important. It has got huge implications politically, of course, as well as economically."

Blair, who was interviewed at the headquarters of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change in central London, called on the United Kingdom and other Western countries to embrace the initiative.

"I would like to see us work out ways in which we can be part of this. We should actually be understanding. This is China exerting the role that it will inevitably exert as it becomes more powerful," he said.

Blair, 64, who left office as prime minister in 2007, also welcomed other China moves such as the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, and supported the UK government's decision to be a founding member despite the US refusal to participate.

"The problem with the Western institutions is that they have become hopelessly bureaucratic. One of the reasons why there are African countries who welcome Chinese investment is that it tends to be much less bureaucratic and much swifter to be realized."

Blair said many in the West do not comprehend the scale of China's achievements since reform and opening-up, which has lifted 700 million people out of poverty since it began 40 years ago.

"It is a really significant event. If you were a Western student, you would study lots of things about the politics of the late 20th century. You would study the Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of apartheid," he said.

"You wouldn't probably study in the same way the opening-up of China, and yet it signaled that China was going on a new path of engagement with the world with the opening-up of its economy. The results have been staggering."

Blair also said the quality of the political debate in China is often now at a deeper level than that in the West.

"There is a quality of debate in China that takes place at the highest levels of the political structure that doesn't happen in the same way in the West."

The former prime minister singled out Xi's report to the CPC 19th National Congress, which heralded Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, as a prime example.

He said it was important to follow in detail the messages sent out by China's leadership.

"It was a really interesting speech from a number of different angles," Blair said. "One of the interesting things about the speeches of the Chinese leaders, that I have learned over time, is that they're actually worth reading. I know this sounds a bit of an odd thing to say, but in Western politics leaders often give speeches where frankly it is just sort of politics."

In the interview earlier this month, Blair also said it was vital for the West to engage with China rather than resist it.

"The rise of China is the single biggest geopolitical change of the 21st century. There is virtually no problem in the world that can be resolved without China," he said.

Blair has called for the UK to hold a second referendum to give the British people the chance to reverse their 2016 decision to leave the European Union.

"The country is perfectly entitled to change its mind once it sees what the terms of Brexit really are, and at the moment we don't know what the terms are. We know that we voted to leave the European Union, but we don't know what the port of destination is yet," he said.

Blair said Britain exiting the EU will make it more difficult for the world's second-largest economy to reach a new European trade treaty.

Negotiations have been ongoing for more than a decade to upgrade the 1985 agreement, with market access to a number of sectors remaining an issue.

"From China's perspective, it will have lost a key ally in the European Union fighting protectionism in Europe. It will be better for China if Britain stays within Europe," he said.

He does not believe Britain can have a better trading relationship with China if it signs its own free trade deal after leaving the EU.

"Anything we want to do with China, we're perfectly capable of doing inside of the European Union," he said.

Blair said that negotiating a free-trade agreement with China after leaving the EU could prove difficult for the UK.

"Britain will have to negotiate this free trade agreement over a period of years. I can't see that it is going to be in a better position to negotiate with China on its own than with the whole of the European bloc behind it," he said.

When UK International Trade Secretary Liam Fox visited Beijing on Jan 3, it was suggested Britain might seek to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the proposed new trading alliance, instead. The TPP's members include Japan, one of the UK's leading trading partners, and a number of Commonwealth nations.

"It's a somewhat bizarre thing to think you are going to replace the trading relationship with Europe with one with the Pacific. But on the other hand, if Britain leaves the European Union, it is going to be obviously looking for all the trading relationships it can get," Blair said.

Blair has long-standing connections with China. He first visited the country in 1988 and was prime minister when Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997.

His sister-in-law Katy, who is Chinese from Hong Kong, made it clear to him at the time that despite being an Anglophile herself, the people of the former colony saw themselves as being Chinese and wanted to be part of China.

"She's a big part of the Chinese community here in the UK. So yes, I see it (China) from many different angles," he said.

The former prime minister said he has no plans to seek office after leaving Parliament, after standing down as prime minister.

"I've got no plans to return to front-line politics, but I want to be very politically active. I'm very worried about the West and its political position at the moment. I think this populism of the left and right is dangerous. I think if we end up becoming anti-immigrant on the right and anti-business on the left, we will do a lot of damage to ourselves," he said.

He said his focus is now on his institute, which works on governance, particularly in developing countries such as those in Africa, Middle East relations, counter-extremism and setting a new centrist agenda for Western politics.

"I would love to develop another strain of work for the institute that is specifically around China because I think it deserves its own focus. The thing that I have understood more since leaving office than I understood when in office is not how much I knew about China but how little. That is true for most people in the West, even very educated people."

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