Boris Johnson declared that he was “fervently Sinophile” in a Downing Street conversation with Chinese business leaders last month. If it weren’t 2021, and if Boris Johnson weren’t leading a country that had freshly emerged from Brexit, only to experience one of the worst crises in nation history, we might be tempted to conclude that, “All is well” for UK-China relations.
Except all is not well. Despite Boris’ best attempts to woo China, and China’s amorphous dual-pronged strategy of steadfast trenchancy over ideology and values, and a broadly amicable and open economic courting of British firms, bilateral relations between the two countries have reached a historic low over the past two years.
Some have attributed this partial deterioration of relations to China’s aggressive foreign policy – namely, the rise of Wolf Warrior diplomats and unabashedly assertive attitudes over its overseas interests. Others have faulted the British government for being excessively doctrinaire and wanting to have its cake and eat it, too. But the UK can’t have it both ways with China, and that appears to be something that Westminster has yet to recognise.
Still, certain segments of the international community posit that COVID-19 and Hong Kong have acted as effective catalysts for long-standing animosities and tensions – and that the “Golden Age,” as articulated by former Prime Minister David Cameron and Former Chancellor George Osbourne, was doomed to fail from the very beginning.
What’s unmissable and indisputable here is that the UK and China are not currently on the best of terms.
Widespread resentment towards British Chinese – fuelled partly by ethnocentric racism, and partly by inflammatory rhetoric espoused by politicians – has led to a spike in hate crimes targeting Asian-appearing immigrants in the country. Westminster has repeatedly admonished Beijing for allegedly violating the Joint Declaration, over Hong Kong’s political autonomy and status – a charge vehemently denied by China, who insists that Hong Kong remains a part of its “internal affairs.” The UK government has suspended an extradition treaty with China, banned 5G, and signed off multiple petitions and international resolutions demanding Chinese concessions on Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
On the other hand, Chinese diplomats have also taken to aggressively rebuking the actions of the British. Ambassador Liu Xiaoming warned that the UK would “bear the consequences” should it treat China as a “hostile” country. Recent fracas over the future of Hong Kong migrants and citizens have resulted in Beijing unilaterally ceasing to recognise the British National Overseas (BNO) passport as a valid travel document.
In spite of the latest developments – what, really, should both parties do? Both countries have incentives that pull in different directions. On one hand, both states would benefit from greater economic integration and collaboration at large, especially in view of the pandemic’s impacts on China and Britain’s uncertain post-Brexit future. On the other, concerns over values, national security, and ‘sovereignty’ baselines mean that an absolute dissolution of the rivalry and unease between the two states is both unlikely and arguably undesirable.
With that said, here are three ways through which the spiralling tensions could be contained and managed:
Firstly, both Britain and China alike must identify and differentiate between their core interests and negotiable interests. To Britain and for the British populace, what matters is that their national culture and values are not eroded by Chinese presence; that their economic interests are preserved – especially given the tumultuous uncertainty spurred on by the country’s ignominious exit from the largest economic bloc in the world. As for the Chinese, issues such as Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet are likely to remain no-go zones when it comes to international liaison, yet they should give Chinese firms, such as Huawei, and their ability to comply with financial ordinances and regulations in British jurisdiction, a serious rethink. Additionally, allegations of potential infiltration into British civil society remain a sticking point for the UK – and such concerns should be taken seriously. This is not to say that the Chinese are necessarily perpetrators of sabotage or espionage, but merely that there exists substantial mistrust between the civil societies of both states that merits urgent redressing.
Secondly, and given the above, both parties would benefit from cordoning areas of rivalry off from areas of prospective collaboration. In areas such as economics and trade, environmental protection and climate change, and tackling public health crises, both the British and Chinese governments alike should shun ideological predispositions and engage fairly with one another, and determine arrangements of responsibility that are both equitable and publicly palatable. The latter criterion is especially important for Britain, given the parliamentary democracy structures that undergird their governance. China must recognise that optics do matter, and that money alone is insufficient as a tool of winning over support and buy-in from foreign audiences.
Similarly, Westminster should steer clear of narratives that politicise or frame episodes such as the COVID-19 pandemic through implicitly Sinophobic or explicitly bigoted tropes. Obviously, much of this is far more easier said than done – yet it only makes sense from a realist point of view for these two economies to work in collaboration, as opposed to one another. China has no interest in seizing political control of Britain, and Britain’s protests and gesticulations over Chinese foreign policy are unlikely to amount to significant challenges to the party’s domestic authority. A more thorough appreciation of this fact could go a long way in diffusing status quo tensions.
Take the concrete example of academic exchange. The Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office expanded – from October 1 onwards – the remit of its security vetting for overseas applicants seeking to study subjects related to national security. There is nothing intrinsically wrong about this – indeed, it would be bizarre to think that a country should permit foreign espionage and spies to operate in their territory. Yet the amount of dog-whistling embedded within the gesture – and the subsequent rebuking by the Chinese government of British journalists in the country – collectively do bilateral relations very little favour. Guarding against risks is one thing, framing any and all ethnic Chinese as potential threats in ‘sensitive’ fields is another.
Ultimately, it is imperative that both parties respect each other’s distinctive political culture and baselines. It would be disingenuous to think that Wolf Warrior diplomacy could win China any friends internationally – especially as it alienates moderates and pragmatists who would otherwise find value in engaging in constructive, open dialogue with Beijing. Similarly, to portray China as a pariah and inherently evil state might be a popular sell to select voters, but completely un-conducive towards the collaboration and open dialogue with the second largest economy in the world.
The Golden Age is likely to be over, and it has ended before it arguably even started. Yet this does not mean that the UK and China are destined for war. That need not be the case.