DURING an interview Rishi Sunak was asked by Sky’s Kay Burley if he’d fist-bump with the Saudi crown prince. That’s the Saudi prince who’s alleged to have been involved in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And that’s the Prince whose kingdom has a habit, with those convicted of crimes like witchcraft and sorcery, of stoning them to death or beheading them in public. Rishi said he wasn’t a fist-bump guy but he’d shake hands with the Prince, as he did with foreign representatives in general.
This uncoupling of human rights and trade discussion shouldn’t come as a surprise. When Chinese President Xi Jinping was Chinese Vice-President in 2012, he visited the south of Ireland and was warmly welcomed. He spent three days there, even finding time to play a bit of hurling as the cameras clicked and onlookers cheered. In 1995 the south of Ireland had exports to China just short of €70 million; in 2020 exports were just short of €12 billion.
So if you’re a human rights decoupler, you’ll warmly welcome trade with China. If you’re someone who thinks the other guy must be able to show a clean human rights record before you’ll have anything to do with him, you’ll be less enthusiastic. Some 500,000 people are believed to be interned indefinitely without charge in China. The death penalty operates there, but the government won’t say how many are carried out each year.
You can see what I’m getting at. The south of Ireland along with other EU states has employed all sorts of trading sanctions on Putin’s Russia, because he has invaded Ukraine. It makes sense, you may say, it can’t be business as usual if a country’s leader is so brazen in his disrespect for a democratic neighbour. Nightly we see the destruction and death that’s being inflicted by the Russian army.
Yet Micheál Martin appears undisturbed by China’s human rights record, even though there’s documented evidence from Xinjiang province of forced labour, detention in internment camps torture, physical and sexual abuse, mass surveillance, family separation and the repression of cultural and religious expression.
So you could bet the farm that Micheál Martin is on his knees every night praying Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan doesn’t blow up into an economic blockade of trade with China, mirroring the one with Russia.
Warm welcome and positive meeting with PM @leehsienloong in Singapore.— Micheál Martin (@MichealMartinTD) July 22, 2022
We discussed the great potential in the relationship between our two nations, and also Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, regional issues in Asia, EU-UK relations, and climate change. pic.twitter.com/mKzQ4xCILk
Sometimes, of course, it works the other way round: the economic arrangement between countries will drive political action. The UK claimed its sovereignty as a trading nation was being infringed by the EU and so Brexit was born. Unfortunately the UK now finds itself heading into a three-year recession, which could in turn trigger political change. Scotland won’t appreciate being dragged into the economic mire by Westminster’s three-year recession and could very well head for the door marked ‘UK EXIT’. Which in turn would further boost the case for a border poll and Irish reunification.
So of course Rishi Sunak, should he find himself British Prime Minister, is going to shake hands with the Saudi prince. And he’ll visit countries and receive their representatives, regardless of human rights, if said countries offer an economic opportunity.
Politics is the art of the possible, and if you believe that shaking hands will lead to a happy outcome, then shake you must. Sometimes it’ll lead to improved trading figures, as between the south of Ireland and China. Sometimes it’ll involve gripping the hand of a Saudi prince with journalist’s blood on it, or gripping the hand of the Commander-in-Chief of the Parachute Regiment.
It’s simple, really. Most sane people don’t insist that their cardiologist provide proof they’re not having a bit on the side before allowing them to operate on their heart.