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Foreign Policy

How Will Brexit Affect China-UK Relations?

Aug 09, 2019
  • Zhang Bei

    Assistant Research Fellow, China Institute of International Studies

The third British Prime Minister in just over three years, Boris Johnson is a once-unlikely candidate whose rise became inevitable during this unusual moment in British politics. Johnson’s pitch, that “no ifs or buts” Britain would leave the EU by October 31, sounds irrational considering the economic uncertainties of a no-deal Brexit, but might actually be a rational political move. For many in his Conservative Party, putting Boris Johnson in Downing No. 10 is to the means to steer the right path for Brexit, neutralize Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, and stop a Corbyn government. Johnson’s ascendance to power is a byproduct of Brexit and a clear illustration of how Brexit has transformed since the referendum.

Three years after the referendum, according to 2019 British Social Attitude Survey, differences in support for Brexit have widened. Far more people identify strongly as a Remainer or a Leaver nowadays than as a strong supporter of a political party. As a result, it might be that today’s Remainers and Leavers represent two rather different segments of British society, a division that is not easily healed.

The polarization is reflected in British politics, as now there is basically no middle way on Brexit. Theresa May’s “muddled” deal was rejected three times in parliament, by both firm Brexiteers and parties in opposition. The revolt of grassroots Conservative members and the result of local elections and the European election in May pushed the Conservative Party to a hard Brexit approach, paving way for Prime Minister Johnson. And with remain voters flocking to the LibDems, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is under pressure to tilt to appeal to Remainers, abandoning its earlier approach of appealing to both camps.

This societal and political polarization makes the possibility of solving the Brexit gridlock even more improbable. At this moment, the risk of an early election is quite high. The “do or die” approach of the Conservative Party is due to clash with the Parliamentary opposition sooner or later. The party’s hardened approach has alienated a considerable number of its own MPs including former Cabinet Ministers, the working majority of the Conservative Party in Westminster has fallen to only 1 seat, and the Parliament has shown its determination against a no-deal Brexit several times before. In a not-so-distant future, there must be a confrontation between Remainers and Leavers, either in the form of a general election or a second referendum or both, as neither side is willing to make peace with the other.

Brexit, though it remains a completely domestic affair for the UK and is still distant drama for Chinese observers, will eventually cause ripple effects for China-UK relations.

For one thing, Brexit has led to a deterioration of governance: we have seen both high level leaks and, more directly, a lack of coordination and long-term thinking on China-related issues. With many politicians thinking in the short-term, China could be another tool used for immediate political gains. This was on display in the gunboat diplomacy of the former defense secretary and the call-outs on Hong Kong by some politicians.

In addition, with China-U.S. competition intensifying, the international basis for the China-UK relations “Golden Era” has changed dramatically since its birth four years ago. If the UK was relatively comfortable declaring its willingness to be the strongest advocate of China in the West four years ago, now it has to think about the potential reaction from Trump’s America in doing so. For the firm Brexiteers, a closer economic relationship with the U.S. is an important part of post-Brexit success, and there are signs that Britain is moving away from its long-held positions, as in the case of Iran, to improve relations with the U.S. After all, the former UK Ambassador to the U.S. Sir Kim Darroch warned in leaked cables that the UK can not expect any special treatment from Trump’s America, it will have to work harder for its favor.

However, it is almost a consensus in British politics that, though they might not agree with China on many issues, Britain needs a relationship with China to deliver real benefits to the British people and economy. Though China might not be the top priority for the new government at this moment, China has a big role to play in a post-Brexit world. It is comforting to see the new Prime Minister has declared his enthusiasm for developing China-UK ties, but the challenges for future relations remain. As much as the new government currently aligns with Trump, it will also have to consider the impact on relations with China.

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