U.K.’s China Influencers Debate Sino-British Relationship

This weekend, the U.K.’s new aircraft carrier and its fleet will embark on an eight-month voyage through the South China Sea, in a significant show of military force by London intended as a signal to the Chinese government. The voyage comes at a fraught time for U.K.-China relations, with the last year marked by a string of events that have hurt ties between two countries, such the banning of Huawei from British 5G networks, the passing of the National Security Law and London’s subsequent creation of an immigration pathway for some Hong Kongers, and more recently, tit-for-tat sanctions related to China’s human rights atrocities in Xinjiang.

This week, a series of reports by multiple publications have tried to characterize the Sino-British relationship as it stands now. The Financial Times’ Helen Warrell and George Parker reported on Britain’s “battleship diplomacy” and how it fits with the U.K.’s post-Brexit “economic, political, and security priorities”:

The UK’s China policy has not been in stasis. Over the past year, the government has banned Huawei from 5G networks, offered UK passports to British National Overseas citizens in Hong Kong, and issued sanctions against officials implicated in the persecution of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. The new National Security and Investment Act, which gained royal assent two weeks ago, promises to prevent companies linked to states such as China from buying sensitive UK assets.

But behind the scenes, there is tension over exactly how Britain should position itself. “There’s still confusion in government about our China policy,” says one British diplomat. “The economic ministries don’t want to put the relationship at risk and the education department isn’t really tackling issues like free speech and intellectual property in the way some would like. But in the end the integrated [policy] review tried to strike a balance that accepts the world we are in.”

[…] Against this background of political uncertainty, the deployment to the Indo-Pacific — a decade since the £3.2bn investment in the Queen Elizabeth carrier was first confirmed — appears to be a decisive move. Setting out his plans in parliament last month, [Defence secretary Ben] Wallace warned of Beijing’s increasing maritime assertiveness, and promised Britain would be “confident but not confrontational” in its transit of the South China Sea — a critical route almost all of which China claims as sovereign territory. [Source]

For Quartz, Annabelle Timsit interviewed a number of the U.K.’s most influential voices on China policy as part of a series on the bilateral relationship. Her introductory article provided a primer on the key issues animating the debate in the U.K. about its engagement with China:

Before the pandemic, the UK, historically one of China’s closest allies in Europe, was often willing to stand by Beijing in difficult moments. In 2015, it became the first Western nation to join the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in spite of objections from the US, with which the UK famously has a “special relationship.” (At the time, an Obama administration official called out UK prime minister David Cameron for his “constant accommodation of China.”) The UK’s decisions tended to influence others: Five other European countries joined the AIIB around the same time.

[…] In 2021, China and Britain 2.0 no longer get along. That matters irrespective of nationality, as the relationship impacts most industries and sets the tone for other democracies’ interactions with Beijing. “The UK is realizing that the China it thought it was courting eight years ago no longer exists,” argues Eyck Freyman, author of One Belt One Road: Chinese Meets the World.

[…] In March 2021, the UK government published a review of its foreign policy, with a stronger focus than ever on China and the broader Indo-Pacific region. It names China as a “systemic competitor” but argues the UK should continue to “pursue a positive economic relationship.” Critics called the Integrated Review confused and inconsistent.

This year will see more changes in the UK-China relationship. Some of the major flash points will be around human rights, academic freedom, climate change, and supply chains. Parliamentary rebels are calling for a complete review of the UK’s dependency on China in every industry. Chinese companies in other industries, like nuclear , could face a Huawei-style ban. Surveys of British people (pdf) show there is little appetite for any kind of engagement with China, except on climate change—which is handy, since the climate summit COP26 is set to take place in Glasgow in November. But UK-China tensions may get in the way of that collaboration: In March, China declined to attend a summit on climate change that was scheduled a few days after the UK government imposed sanctions on CCP officials. [Source]

The interviews, with figures ranging from hawkish MPs and human rights activists to media figures, ex-diplomats, and academics trying to add complexity to the debate, provide an overview of where stakeholders stand on issues including: the Huawei ban, the U.K.’s BNO scheme for Hong Kongers, sanctions against Hong Kong and Xinjiang officials, a boycott of the 2022 Olympics, and the presence of British judges on Hong Kong’s top court.

One interview profiled Tom Tugendhat, a co-founder of the China Research Group, a think tank to “promote debate and fresh thinking about how Britain should respond to the rise of China.” Tugendhat was the target of retaliatory Chinese sanctions in response to the U.K.’s sanctioning of four Xinjiang security officials in March:

Do you feel like you’ve evolved in your views on the Chinese government and on China? Become more hawkish over time, perhaps?

Tugendhat: I think the committee has changed. But I would be cautious about saying we’re hawkish. I wouldn’t describe it as hawkish to seek to defend your interests. We’re not hawkish in the sense that we’re trying to invade or send gunboats up the Yangtze. We’re just very conscious that the international rules-based system, which is a rather grand way of saying the way in which the world tries to settle disputes in a predictable and ordered fashion, is being undermined by a country that has decided that it wants to use its weight and authority rather than established practice.

When CRG launched it was often mentioned in the same breath as the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), but since then it seems the groups have drifted apart. Do you see them as similar or different?

Tugendhat: I think they’re pretty different. IPAC are a lobbying group, and they’re trying to get people together to do bills on the Uyghur genocide, or whatever it is. There’s a role for that, and we’re not trying to do that. We’re trying to be more academic.

I don’t disagree with IPAC on some of the things that they do [but] I may not do them myself. I’ve always been, for example, more cautious about calling the serious violation of human rights in Xinjiang “genocide.” I think it probably is, but I’m not a lawyer. As Philippe Sands put it, serious human rights violations are serious enough. These are very, very, very, very serious—whether they’re genocide or not, I’m not bothered about. The important detail is there are people, particularly women, particularly Uyghurs, whose rights are being seriously violated by the Chinese state. [Source]

Another interview profiled Rana Mitter, a history professor and the former director of Oxford’s China Center:

The British Foreign Policy Group came out with a survey on what Britons think about China. Only 30% supported the idea of Chinese students attending UK universities. You’re an academic who built your career on understanding China. How does that make you feel?

Mitter: It is absolutely imperative that we continue to have Chinese students in our classrooms, for one reason that I’m very upfront about: It is possible for us to teach elements of Chinese history and in the UK—elements of the Mao era’s history, for instance—that are simply impossible to discuss in as free and frank a way within China as you can do in the UK. And many Chinese students value that. I think many Chinese officials and historians value it too, they just can’t say it, because it means that some aspects of China’s complexity in its past is preserved.

[…] Where does that leave the UK and where does that leave China?

Mitter: I think it leaves us with a challenge for each side. So let me start with the UK. [The government must] equip its business, academics, , media, with an understanding of what China is and what it isn’t and how it’s of relevance to the UK. Too often [China] has been regarded either as a massive market which somehow people can sell into and that’s its only purpose, or as the new Soviet Union, essentially an ideological enemy which has nothing but malign intentions and which we must keep away from at all costs.

On the Chinese side, I would say that the greatest obstacle to China’s rise in the world is not the Americans, it’s China itself, because China is a strong country, which is acting as if it were a weak country. And because I’m a historian, I understand that not that long ago, China was constantly invaded, bombed, and attacked. All sorts of things would go on to shape the mindset of a political elite which felt itself to be under siege.

But today, China is not under siege. China is prosperous, it’s got a party state system, which I personally think is quite embedded and relatively stable. It has a great deal of influence in the world. It’s no longer a country which has to be defensive about absolutely everything. And the only thing that is getting in the way of China being able to tell [its] story is its authoritarian system of government, which it clings to when it has, I think, no real need to. [Source]

But the U.K.-China relationship cannot just be understood from one side’s perspective. For The Diplomat, Thomas des Garets Geddes, a research analyst with European China think tank MERICS (which was also hit with retaliatory sanctions in March), wrote about the surprisingly bullish attitude of Chinese academics about the future of Sino-British relations:

While the risk of being hit by Beijing’s trade stick is real, too much attention has been paid to the Hu Xijins, Zhao Lijians, and Hua Chunyings of this world and not enough to the elite discussions going on inside of China. Contrary to what one might suppose after so much talk of a deterioration in Sino-British relations, Chinese think tanks and academics have remained, on the whole, relatively optimistic about the future. There are several reasons for this as became clear in the 30 or so papers and published interviews reviewed for this article.

[…] There is also general agreement among these Chinese researchers that Britain’s decision to leave the EU has weakened the U.K.’s position in the world and that it now needs to build new alliances with like-minded partners. Many believe that by positioning itself against China, as a convener of liberal-minded democracies and staunch defender of human rights, Britain is attempting to preserve what is left of its “great power status” and influence in the world. So, however much Chinese academics might disapprove of Britain’s anti-China behavior, there seems to be a degree of understanding, or perhaps wishful thinking, among many of these observers as to why Britain is behaving this way – it effectively has to.

[…] That being said, there is a general consensus in Chinese think tanks and academic circles that this Anglo-American rapprochement is, once again, only temporary. As one observer put it, “where there is pressure, there will be resistance.” Too many contradictions are also said to exist between the ideals of “Global Britain” and alleged U.S. “unilateralism,” “protectionism,” and “habitual bullying.” Tensions are therefore bound to arise, they say, leading to a recalibration of the “special relationship” in the medium term. As Britain gradually works through its differences with the EU and consolidates its other alliances, its dependence on the United States will start to decrease again, most of these analysts predict, leaving more room for Sino-British cooperation. Furthermore, China’s potential value to Britain in terms of trade and investments is seen as far outweighing that of the U.S. A cash-strapped and secession-prone United Kingdom simply cannot afford to forfeit its relationship with Beijing, they argue. This, then, is another reason for hope. [Source]

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