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Opinion | Britain's China dilemma strikes again

By Tom Fowdy

On Tuesday, British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly will make a keynote speech concerning the country's relations with China, where he is expected to say, "isolating China would be 'betrayal of our national interest" and speak out against a "new cold war", as well as rejecting terms which "generalize" the country, such as "adversary" or "competitor". Similarly, the address is expected to condemn China's "authoritarianism", particularly with reference to Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and ask Beijing to "adhere to its international obligations".

At first glance, the political messaging signalled in the speech is a clear backtrack on the increasingly aggressive approach to China the United Kingdom has taken in recent months, and especially in the midst of the ultra-hawkish rhetoric Rishi Sunak espoused during his Conservative leadership campaign, where he branded Beijing the "biggest threat to the United Kingdom", and similarly, the ultra-fanatical approach Liz Truss would have taken had her Premiership not collapsed in a month. She has nonetheless continued to position herself as an anti-China lobbyist from the backbenches, who have sought to constantly push the UK's China policy rightwards.

While Rishi Sunak is not of course a hardliner when it comes to opposing China, ultimately actions speak louder than words when it comes to the government's position in general, and it seems clear because of such Britain just simply does not know what it truly wants when it comes to Beijing. A combination of factional struggles, the influence of a hostile media, pressure from the United States and its ability to create opposition to Beijing through "manufacturing consent" has created a jagged China policy which leans towards hostility but is unable to truly "materialize" the essence of engagement, leading to a subtle erosion of the status-quo, as opposed to a collapse in the US.

It goes without saying that an economic relationship with China is critical to British national interests. The UK economy is in a rut, its GDP is stagnant, inflation is surging and incomes are shrinking. The impacts of Brexit have only made this worse, damaging its integration with the European continent. While it would seem in the midst of Brexit that strengthening ties with China, the world's largest market, was a logical option, the shifting geopolitical context and growing hostility at home has tied the government's hands, pushing Britain into an "Indo-Pacific" foreign policy and seeking to coordinate with the US in the military containment of China.

It is clear the Foreign Secretary, as well as Sunak himself, aims to try and balance these growing geopolitical pressures with the realistic need to sustain ties with Beijing, but the question is, how? First of all, the United States has a clear veto on what areas Britain is allowed to engage with China on and which ones it isn't. For example, Britain wanted Huawei to participate in the building of its 5G network, the US said no. A Chinese firm took over the failing Newport wafer fabrication plant, the US demanded it be vetoed. Likewise, issues such as Hong Kong and Xinjiang have been duly weaponized in order to procure support to undermine Britain's ties with China at every level. For example, the city of Newcastle ended its sister city relationship with Taiyuan, citing Xinjiang, upon lobbying by Hong Kong NGOs, or how Tesco will now stop using Hikvision also on request of the Tibet campaigners.

It is therefore unequivocally true that the United Kingdom does not have the political will or capacity to shape the relationship with China according to its own sovereign interests, because not only external pressures, but its own domestic environment prevents it from doing so. Hence we can see over the channel in France, even a visit to China by Emmanuel Macron, a country with a much more maverick foreign policy and political space to do so, an insistence on engaging with China creates a media, political and analytical firestorm. In the UK, attempts to engage are thus duly opposed by the right-wing press and a coalition of right-wing MPs led by Iain Duncan Smith and Liz Truss, all without considering the US.

So even if the British government signals it seeks to continue engagement, the relationship remains ultimately in a slow state of attrition because opposing China has become a zealous form of political correctness. Given such circumstances, it would require a much stronger exertion of leadership by Britain in order to change course, to stand up to the US and pursue an independent foreign policy. This is of all of course ironic, as Brexit was marketed as doing just that, the truth on the other hand, is anything but. The temptation for Anglo-Saxon Imperialist chauvinism, Sinophobic grandstanding and the starry eyed dreams of the special relationship are just too strong, and the most unpopular government in 30 years, tarnished by a series of scandals and inept leadership doesn't have many choices. It's much easier to just say what people want to hear, as opposed to needing to hear.

The author is a well-seasoned writer and analyst with a large portfolio related to China topics, especially in the field of politics, international relations and more. He graduated with an Msc. in Chinese Studies from Oxford University in 2018.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of DotDotNews.


Read more articles by Tom Fowdy:

Opinion | Overseas Chinese Police Stations - The Latest Yellow Peril Meme

Opinion | Brazil can be the next emerging power of the 21st century



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