During the Cameron-Clegg Coalition government between 2010 and 2015, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, led determined efforts to create a UK-China ‘Golden Era’ of diplomatic and economic relations. This culminated in the full State Visit of the Chinese Premier to the UK in 2015.
Vote Leave viewed a closer trading relationship with China as an example of the benefits of Brexit, with talk of a post-Brexit trade deal. No 10 labelled the UK as “China’s best partner in the West”. Britain was the first of the G7 countries to break ranks against determined US lobbying to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Whilst still in the EU, the UK championed an economic approach that argued in favour of Chinese investment, including in sensitive sectors, such as a new generation of nuclear power plants. Boris Johnson is on record stating that he is “pro-China” and “very enthusiastic about the Belt and Road Initiative”.
Fast forward to January 2021 and the contrast could scarcely be starker. The UK has become one of China’s most vocal critics; legislated to remove Huawei from its 5G network; offered passports to millions of people from Hong Kong; plans to send a Royal Navy Carrier Group to the South China Sea; and legislated to clamp down on Chinese investments with a new National Security and Investment Bill.
The reasons for this abrupt change of direction are complicated. Whilst the relationship had already begun deteriorating following China’s introduction of the Hong Kong National Security and Extradition Laws and what many people in the UK viewed as a heavy-handed response to subsequent protests in 2019 and 2020, there is no doubt that Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak and the way it leveraged the follow-up in its international relations has been the catalyst to deteriorating public and political perceptions of China in the UK. As countries around the world struggled with rising infection rates, China alone seemed able to find PPE and ventilators to export to Europe, Asia and Africa. The British public suddenly became painfully aware of the extent to which Western economies had become reliant on China.
For its part, in the eyes of many observers China seemed to view the pandemic as an opportunity and its foreign policy became increasingly assertive, alarming many commentators with its “wolf warrior” diplomats and its response to the Hong Kong democracy campaigners. In this context, the footage of bound and hooded Uyghurs kneeling in lines on station platforms, awaiting transportation to detention centres, merely added fuel to China’s rapidly deteriorating international image.
The UK public has also grown increasingly hostile to China. A UK poll last October found 74% of the public have a negative view of China; 60% view China as a “force for bad” in the world and a “threat”; 52% approved of the ban on Huawei; 49% blamed China for Covid-19. To this last group of people, it seemed it seemed inconceivable that China should appear to benefit from the pandemic for which they felt it bore responsibility.
As public opinion swung, the memory of the UK-China ‘Golden Era’ receded to be replaced by a starker vision and public criticism of China by senior UK politicians increased. Cross-party support for a harder UK line on China played an important part in the Prime Minister’s decision on Huawei in July last year. There is even a tendency now in some UK political circles to view China in the same category as Russia, Iran and N Korea.
None of this happens in a domestic vacuum, of course. The EU, India, Japan and the US have all become more confrontational in their relationships with China. The UK, desperate for a Free-Trade Deal with the US to offset EU trading losses, will be watching very closely how the Biden Administration approaches its bilateral relationship with China. Although President Trump’s overall policy position on China was not decisive, the threat to withdraw US intelligence cooperation if the UK went ahead and deployed Huawei’s 5-G technology was a crucial factor in the UK’s decision to ban it. And some Asian economies have also become more wary of China’s rising power. With an eye on expanding its trade with Asia, the UK is seeking membership in the CPTPP, which will increasingly bring UK and Chinese companies into contact with each other.
The UK’s oscillating position with regards to its relationship with China has not gone unnoticed. The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee in March 2020 wrote “there does not appear to be a clear sense either across Government or within the [Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office] of what the overarching theme of a new policy towards China should be.” The UK Government will conclude its Integrated Review – a major review of its foreign, development and defence policy priorities (as well as supply chain dependency on China) – later this year. That will present an opportunity to move beyond the current piecemeal approach and formulate a coherent long-term strategy for the UK’s relationship with China.
China is too big to ignore. And it is too complex to simply label either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The UK, perhaps more exposed now it is outside the EU, will need a balanced China policy, governed by clear-headed decisions on when and how to work with China on those issues where there is common ground. As host of the COP26 Summit at the end of the year, the UK needs China to play a positive supporting role: equally, as host of the G7 Summit later this year, the UK has chosen a more confrontational approach, expanding the G-7 by inviting Australia, India and Korea to attend and re-badging it the D-10 (D for Democracy). These two immediate examples, along with the range of issues that hang over the relationship (from Hong Kong to the Uyghurs), suggest that, even with a new China strategy, UK-China relations are likely to remain strained.