China has become a hot topic in British politics in the past 12 months as lawmakers and activists have realized just how much Britain relies on a country to oppose many of the things it claims to represent. And many in London are concerned that Prime Minister Boris Johnson lacks the time and imagination to adequately address one of Britain’s greatest foreign challenges.
Johnson’s administration recently released a post-Brexit foreign policy review that found China “will contribute more to global growth than any other country over the next decade,” and economies like the UK “need to engage” with China and remain open to Chinese trade and investment. Nor is it improperly suggested that the international community will need Beijing’s cooperation if global challenges such as climate change are to be adequately addressed.
However, the report also acknowledges in tempered language that China is a “systemic competitor” and “the greatest government threat to Britain’s economic security”.
Many in the UK have therefore wondered exactly where Johnson’s head and heart are when it comes to what he admits that this is possibly the greatest challenge facing Western democracy.
Even those who have worked closely with Johnson strive to present a single view of his stance.
Guto Harri, Johnson’s former communications director during his tenure as Mayor of London, recalls her trips to Beijing in 2008 when Johnson brought the Olympic and Paralympic flags back to London in preparation for the 2012 Games to partially convey his view of the country.
“It was a strange time to be in China. We were there on September 17th, just two days after Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy,” said Harri. “There was a remarkable contrast between the collapse of a huge American bank while China dazzled the world with its strength.”
He felt, however, that Johnson wasn’t as enthusiastic as others in the UK: “When one of us said how amazing the ceremony had been, Boris said, ‘Yes, if you want humanity reduced to patches of light in a kaleidoscope becomes. “Instinctively, he didn’t like the unity of the communist state.”
This story agrees with the view of his allies: Johnson sees the need for a balanced approach for China that does not impede world trade but reduces reliance on state-sponsored investments and technology from the Chinese state.
China is systematically leading in the technologies of the future and at the same time invests in infrastructure projects of other nations. At the same time, it has become one of the West’s toughest rivals in terms of cyber warfare, raising the problem that if you want to take advantage of cheaper Chinese 5G technology or other innovations, you are doing so at the alleged risk of theft in Beijing State secrets and intellectual property.
Although the Chinese government has repeatedly and vehemently denied these allegations, UK lawmakers are well aware of the obvious mystery. Over the past decade, the UK has relied on China for a variety of critical infrastructures.
The state-owned China General Nuclear Power Corporation has a 33.5% stake in the Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant currently under construction and has invested in other future nuclear projects. The China National Offshore Oil Corporation also claims that it supplies “more than 25% of Britain’s oil production and 10% of the country’s energy needs”.
And despite the UK’s plan to remove Chinese tech giant Huawei’s devices from the country’s 5G network by 2027, those networks are already up and running.
In addition, UK investments in China have increased significantly after Brexit. The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) released a report last year which found that investments from the UK to China in 2018 increased 150% year over year to $ 2.9 billion.
Despite the hawks’ wishes, China is a reality that Britain cannot wish away, as much as some Beijing critics believe Johnson is on their side.
People who worked with Johnson during his tenure as Secretary of State say there is nothing to suggest he is a sinophile. For two years, Johnson visited India, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, but never China. This, according to well-known, disgruntled Chinese diplomats who wanted to point out that China has invested more in Britain than any other European nation.
China Hawks could also take comfort in the recently released review and its commitment to lead a global ocean operation that will visit the Indo-Pacific with the US and other allies – a move that will no doubt irritate Beijing, which Washington has accused of doing tried to sow discord in the region.
However, there is equally compelling evidence of the prime minister’s fondness for China. Aside from the kind words he wrote as a columnist for the Daily Telegraph (at the height of the avian flu crisis, Johnson wrote that “the advent of China and its integration into the world economy was a major growth and deterrent” to inflation. It is an unalloyed good “), members of his family have strong ties to China. His father Stanley met with the Chinese ambassador in early 2020 to discuss China’s role in climate change and protection. According to the embassy’s website, the elderly Johnson praised China’s “environmental achievements” and “outstanding contribution to combating global climate change.”
Meanwhile, Boris’ younger brother Max runs an investment firm that specializes in facilitating investments in China and Chinese companies.
Whatever the Prime Minister’s true feelings toward China, Britain is far from having a coherent, long-term strategy to balance relations. Johnson’s recent convictions may suggest a more hostile tone, but critics note that criticism is currently linked to the need for trade and collaboration.
“There hasn’t been a big concrete policy that actually affects China,” said Benedict Rogers, Conservative Party activist and advisor and advisor to the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China. “The offer of British National Overseas Passes to Hong Kong citizens and sanctions against Chinese officials aroused Beijing’s anger, but China is used to criticism as it goes on as usual.”
Rogers added that Johnson’s administration has a habit of “having his cake and eating it” and thinks this is ultimately their approach to China.
Cake-ism isn’t necessarily a bad approach. David Lidington, previously de facto deputy prime minister and now chairman of RUSI, said the only way to really change China’s behavior is to be less dependent on its economic and technological weight.
“The ban on individual companies like TikTok or Huawei is a little distracting. The only way to contain China is to have a unified Western response and develop our own capacities in terms of artificial intelligence and biotechnology,” he said. “For the UK, this means facilitating discussions between Europe, the US and other democracies about how we regulate things like data and other new technologies.”
Johnson has long claimed that post-Brexit Britain’s prosperity would be built on trade ties with the world. In this regard, the country cannot ignore China and could soon be forced into a corner.
“It is likely that in the next decade, as China becomes more dominant, a narrative will emerge that presents countries with a choice between the US-led West and China. Whether or not that choice is real could be easy its so to be presented, “said Lidington.
The aim of “strategic autonomy” for the European Union aims to avoid just that, by striking a middle ground that uses the power of its internal market and regulatory powers to remain independent of the two hyperpowers. However, after exiting the bloc, Britain is no longer part of this ecosystem and can no longer use its power.
Acting as a bridge between Europe and America in working together in the technological arms race could be a natural role for Britain. However, to make up for this and leave the door open for Chinese investment not only requires complicated international diplomacy, but also careful handling within Johnson’s own Conservative Party.
“There is a divide in the party. There are those who understand that it would be harmful to completely cut China off, and those for whom, after Brexit, China is a new and important dimension to determine our place in the world” said Salma Shah, a former government advisor. “Downing Street needs to give serious thought to how it will present even an early strategy in such a way that both sides are satisfied.”
Johnson made a career by letting people guess what he really thinks, and the post-Brexit reality presents him with a world of new opportunities and new dangers.
When it comes to China, both opportunities and dangers are racing toward him faster than he could ever have imagined. If he is to win the trust of his domestic loyalists and overseas allies, he may have to abandon the policies that previously served him so well and put on the table some solid ideas for fighting China on a global scale. The future of his country might depend on it.