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The Lessons from China’s African Experiences and China’s Bid for Britain’s Post-Brexit Future

Mar 27, 2020
  • Tom Harper

    Doctoral researcher, University of Surrey

As Britain prepares to leave the European Union, what is beyond doubt is that China will remain an integral part of Britain’s future.  Indications of Britain’s post-Brexit China policy has been noted in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s phone call with President Xi Jinping, where Johnson reportedly told his Chinese counterpart that the UK would welcome further Chinese investment, and praised China’s Belt and the Road Initiative (BRI). 

This raises questions over whether Britain will participate in more international institutions set up by Beijing, following the precedent set by Britain’s entry into the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.  It appears that Johnson has dispensed with the more cautious approach favoured by his predecessor, Teresa May ― who was more sceptical over Chinese initiatives ― and is seemingly attempting to revive the so called ‘Golden Era of Sino-British relations’ implemented by David Cameron.

Johnson’s phone call with Xi, while being a rare instance of a conversation between a British Prime Minister and a Chinese president, is symbolic of several developments.  The most obvious of these has been the consternation from Washington, already angered by Britain’s decision to permit the controversial Chinese telecoms giant, Huawei, a limited role in building Britain’s 5G infrastructure.  Washington will view this as being one of its more reliable allies seemingly falling further under China’s influence.

Johnson’s warmer approach towards Xi also contrasts greatly to his more belligerent stance towards the EU, with which the UK is locked in a bitter argument over the terms of its departure.  Alongside the warnings made by Alex Younger, the head of Britain’s intelligence service, MI6, that “power, money, and politics is going East,” it would suggest that Johnson, too, is looking East for Britain’s future outside of Europe.

These moves have also had implications for the EU itself, which is moving towards a more integrated approach advocated by French president, Emanuel Macron.  Alongside Italy’s endorsement of the BRI, Johnson’s approach with Beijing is likely to be a point of contention for Macron’s vision, which envisages a more united EU, able to stand up to nations such as China, United States, and Russia.  Through mechanisms such as the BRI, Chinese investment and projects appear to be an effort by Beijing to divide European nations to prevent a more unified European response to Chinese moves, a move that would be furthered by British overtures to Beijing.

The BRI raises another way in which China can play a greater role in Britain’s post-Brexit future: through its infrastructure.  The most recent example of this has been the bids by Chinese firms to build the proposed High Speed 2 (HS2) line, with these firms promising to have completed it in five years time at a lower cost.  With its experiences in building infrastructure domestically and internationally, China appears to be a natural fit to overhaul Britain’s ageing transportation network, although this, too, raises several issues.

One of these issues comes in China’s experiences of developing infrastructure.  While extensive, China’s prior experiences have largely been confined to the developing world with comparatively little regard for the rule of law.  As a result, the procedures for building infrastructure in developed nations such as the UK would be a learning curve for Chinese firms.  In addition, it is these experiences, along with the perception of Chinese projects as ‘debt traps’ that could lead to fears of a ‘Third World economy’― as depicted by Larry Elliot and Dan Atkinson in their 2012 book, Going South― which can lead to further comparisons between Britain and developing nations.  

The state of British infrastructure also raises issues for the Chinese would-be builders of HS2.  As the pioneer of rail travel, Britain suffers from ‘first mover disadvantage,’ which has left it stuck with outdated infrastructure that is difficult to modernise.  Any substantial upgrade would need to involve the removal of this older infrastructure, which would substantially raise the cost to one that Chinese firms, who have mainly built routes where none had previously existed, are unwilling to commit to. 

In addition, local politics could also provide a potential stumbling block for Chinese firms.  Many of Britain’s proposed infrastructure projects have often been dogged by local opposition, colloquially known as Nimbyism (“not in my back yard”), as shown by the ruling over the proposed third runway for London’s Heathrow airport, which was ruled illegal.  While this has led to celebration from environmental activists and consternation from Britain’s business community, it also shows how potential Chinese projects can be faced with similar resistance.  

This has also been the case for HS2, with some seeing it as an expensive white elephant, or as another exercise to move human capital and resources in a manner that favours London.  A potential backlash would have a notable effect in constituencies where the line would run through, as demonstrated by the resignation of the former Conservative MP, Zac Goldsmith, over the plans regarding Heathrow’s expansion.  As a result, local governments, conscious of such developments, would be wary of such projects for fear that this may result in lost votes.

While Huawei has shown that China-made components will make up a significant part of Britain’s communications infrastructure for many years to come, Chinese firms can potentially chart a similar course for Britain’s transportation networks should they win the bid to build HS2.  For this to be successful, Chinese firms need to acknowledge the realities of Britain’s local politics and infrastructure, and adapt accordingly, as Britain will present a largely different challenge to what they have experienced previously. 

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