Diplomats: The Dangers of Diplomatic Ambiguity

Hong Kong

I have been reading John Mearsheimer’s book “Why Leaders Lie”. It made me reflect on another trait of diplomats: constructive ambiguity. Diplomats by their nature are convinced that an agreement is always possible, if only they can find the right formula. They see non-agreement and the breakdown of talks as personal failure. They can thus put themselves under excessive pressure to find the formula for agreement. British diplomats in particular have traditionally been convinced that it is a question of finding the right form of words that can bridge opposing positions (hence their obsession with good drafting). Frequently this can result in deliberate ambiguity, finding formulae that each side can interpret in their own way. This may secure agreement in the short term, but it doesn’t deal with the underlying disagreement and may store up even worse problems for the future.

 The current conflict between protestors in Hong Kong and the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities is a classic example. The origins of this crisis lie in the deliberate constructive ambiguity adopted by British diplomats to reach agreement with China over democracy in post 1997 Hong Kong. The roots lie in a profound divide over the meaning of the 1984 Joint Declaration. For China, this was an agreement whereby Britain would return Hong Kong to China. In return China would leave Hong Kong’s economic and political system intact. In addition China would guarantee Britain’s commercial interests in Hong Kong and reward Britain with additional commercial contracts in China. As good foreign policy realists, the China saw this agreement in terms of national interests. The British position, on the other hand, had a much stronger “ethical” element. Perhaps feeling guilty about returning Hong Kong’s citizens to China, successive British governments sought to emphasize Hong Kong’s autonomy and build in institutional protections for Hong Kong’s citizens. In doing so, Britain was willing to sacrifice its commercial interests in Hong Kong (for example over the construction of the new airport). Chinese officials found this approach incomprehensible and convinced themselves that the British were implementing a “cunning plot” to retain the real power in Hong Kong after the hand-over.

 This explains the Chinese sensitivity about British proposals to introduce democracy into Hong Kong. They rightly pointed out that Britain had never felt the need to introduce democracy before. While British diplomats tried to justify the proposals in terms of modernizing Hong Kong’s political system, they could scarcely admit the real reason: that Britain did not trust China to fulfil it’s pledges under the 1984 Joint Declaration. Chinese officials concluded that they had uncovered the British plot to maintain control post 1997. British diplomats’ problems were only intensified by the Tianmen crisis. On the one hand, pressure for further democracy grew in Hong Kong with the development of a fully fledged, and very vocal, democracy movement. On the other hand, the sensitivity of Chinese officials, and their suspicion of British intentions, grew.

 This is the background to the constructive ambiguity of British diplomats that may yet end in disaster. They had to bridge the gap between the aspirations of the people of Hong Kong and the paranoia of Chinese officials. There was pressure to find an agreement as Hong Kong would have to return to China in 1997 whatever happened. To some extent this also put pressure on Chinese officials as the handover had to be a success, but British policy never really sought to exploit this. Rather, British diplomats sought forms of words that would satisfy both Chinese officials and the Hong Kong democracy movement (and its British political and media supporters). The inevitable result was the use of constructive ambiguity to secure agreement on a form of words acceptable to both sides, but which left the underlying disagreement untouched. On occasions British officials even went beyond ambiguity: sitting in the Embassy in Madrid, I was stunned to hear then British Governor Chris Patten tell the press that there had been no agreement between Britain and China to limit the number of directly elected seats in the Hong Kong legislature – as a junior diplomat in the British Embassy in Beijing I had participated in the negotiations leading to the agreement. I imagine that my Chinese counterparts were even more stunned.

 Our constructive ambiguity allowed agreements on a progressive process of democratic development to be agreed, and written into the Basic Law. It even allowed these agreements to withstand the political grand-standing of Chris Patten. But it left the underlying disagreements untouched. The democratic movement in Hong Kong believed it had agreement on the direct, and unrestricted, election of the Chief Minister in 2017. China equally believed it had secured agreement that it would retain a veto over candidates. Both sides are equally convinced that they are right, and British diplomats left both with equally justifiable positions.

Neither side in Hong Kong has great margin for manoeuvre. Hong Kong has the added problem that it is no longer as economically and financially important to China as it was in 1997. The Chinese leadership will be concerned about the risk of contagion to the mainland. There is no serious pro-democracy movement in China itself, but there are many social and economic discontents around which protests could build. But China cannot be too brutal in repressing the demonstrations in Hong Kong, both to avoid western economic sanctions that could tip the economy into recession, but also to maintain the conversation with Taiwan about reintegration. The problem of Hong Kong is that it has an unreconciable conflict that neither side can win – the legacy of British diplomats’ determination to secure agreement and their use of constructive ambiguity to achieve it.