Opinion | Can Cameron de-ice the UK-China relationship?
Cameron's comeback proves that there are indeed "second acts in life." Far from being "yesterday's man", he now has a chance to chart a bold new course for British diplomacy.
Cameron may be downcycled from prime minister to foreign minister, but he is no stranger to the corridors of power in major capitals.
Critics say he is not baggage-free. Yes, he can never shake off the blame for Brexit, having launched its ill-judged and ill-fated referendum. Post-Brexit, Britain's global footprint has shrunk significantly. It is now a middling country at best, and barely relevant in the cut and thrust of international sword-crossing.
Cynics are quick to accuse him of having an undisguised love affair with China, with a reputation for cozying up to Beijing and was seen pitching its Sri Lanka port project as part of China's Belt and Road initiative. They didn't bother to mention his clearance by a due vetting process.
It takes utter courage to be a change-maker in the West. Democracy sometimes tends to descend into silliness. In order to repair or revitalize a relationship with an "unfriendly" power, decision-makers must first marshal a record of nastiness against it. Richard Nixon's historic breakthrough with China was down to his pre-existing anti-Communist credentials. As a China hawk, he could do things no moderates would dare do. In Cameron's case, he carries the label of being a China-dove. He will forever be remembered for his picture of having a pint in a pub with President Xi while he was prime minister. At the height of that brief honeymoon, there was talk of turning China into Britain's second-largest trading partner. But in these tense times, his unique qualification is becoming something of a liability. He must tread gingerly and prove that he is not soft on China, his challenge compounded by Sunak's ludicrous claim that China poses "a particular threat to our open and democratic way of life". China and Britain are not even within a sniff of being strategic rivals, not even close.
Meanwhile, British society has fallen into a sorry state. The Conservatives have less than a year before the next election to get things right. Cameron is on borrowed time. The world, too, is in turmoil, in Ukraine and Gaza. But Britain casts a big shadow over neither. In living memory, it has played second fiddle to America and repeatedly found itself knee-deep in a morass of foreign conflicts. Now a mere shadow of its former imperial self, the UK can't fritter away its residual influence. It must unshackle itself and instead embrace the pursuit of common sense in foreign affairs. If Cameron represents anything, he represents a return to even-handed, cool-headed common sense.
This U-turn to rationality is timely for a Britain wallowing in a semi-permanent crisis, with cost of living and homelessness running rampant. Its people are prisoners of despair; few countries offer Britain relief from its social and economic pain. China alone beckons with possibilities. It has just announced visa-free travel for citizens of five EU countries and Malaysia. A thaw is underway. Boosting bilateral ties is beneficial to both. Gullible British politicians have swallowed wholesale lies about China being a strategic threat when in fact it has steered clear of entanglement in any of the world's trouble spots. The Hong Kong mess is a US-instigated insurrection. The Taiwan tensions are likewise whipped up by America fishing in troubled waters. Left alone, both were oases of peace, enjoying the best of both worlds. Foremost, China craves stability.
My advice to Cameron is simple: use your China creditworthiness to reconstruct a friendly relationship before your time runs out. This may be the most notable achievement in your political career. Don't be hamstrung by the tiresome, cynical China-bashing. If you pussyfoot, you are done for good. Antagonizing a peaceful major economic power is a fool's game that runs counter to British interests.
There is a famous line from a popular Chinese wartime song: "When friends come calling, fine wine awaits. But when the wolf lurks, it will be met with a hunter's gun."
With Cameron's custody of the China relationship, it is Mao-tai time for British diplomats. Mao-tai, in case you don't know, is a vintage liquor for valued visitors in China. As the world bubbles in trouble, we want to see Cameron sipping this tipple, clinking glasses again with President Xi, not a lurking wolf in sheep's clothing.