Foreign Affairs

Has Britain bowed down to China?

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When a conservative and a communist walked into a pub in the Autumn of 2015, bystanders would have been forgiven for wondering whether they were implicated in a funny joke. Yet, when David Cameron and Xi Jinping visited The Plough following a round of intensive Chequers talks, it signified more than an open-goal chance at satire.

Cameron, fresh from his shock election majority, was keen to mark the resuscitation of his foreign policy with PR-friendly diplomacy; marking a symbolistic moment in tightening ties with the Chinese government, even if it was just fish and chips. Later, Cameron would describe it as a signal for ‘open-armed eagerness’ in Britain’s approach to diplomacy, although some five years later, one is left wondering whether it really symbolised that at all.

In what had been concocted as the markings of Britain’s revival on the world stage rapidly became a crude irony. Shattered by the Brexit vote, Cameron resigned just eight months after meeting with the Chinese premier, kick-starting a turbulent era of fractured domestic and foreign dealings.

The consequences – although still unclear – weaken Britain’s hand on the world stage, and with a global order currently in disrepair, the world needs the hand of democracy to stop the corrosive rise of authoritarianism imposing itself around the world.

In a show of supposed strong economic consciousness, Chancellor George Osborne declared his intention to forge a ‘golden age’ with China in 2015, suggesting that Britain’s goal ought to be to ensure that it would be its “best partner in the West”.

Strategically, it was born from the recognition that China was a long-time sleeping giant, but officially, the ‘Osborne Doctrine’ was a means to help secure innovation and curate infrastructure projects in depressed areas of the country – something that would form the basis of Xi’s UK Visit. 

In so doing, Britain attempted to tie itself to Beijing – for better or worse – with the goal of embarking on a path of Chinese investment and opportunity creation. But, as with most economic dealings with Beijing, reproach on issues relating to internal social and political conditions were off limits as China would expect the categorical absence of criticism.

Johnathan Fenby, former editor of the South China Morning Post, told Foreign Policy that Xi demanded a ‘quid-pro-quo in terms of political support’. Osborne and Cameron, in actively drawing themselves towards a relationship with China, had ceded political influence in favour of strategically based economic boosts in the North, where the Conservatives had historically performed poorly.

Britain’s values of espousing democracy and promoting the rule of law were, it seemed, relegated to the peripheries. Yet, in almost an acceptance of its mighty fall, it would merely suck it up for economic uptick.

Fast forward five years to the coronavirus pandemic, and Britain’s place in the world order is nervously rocking on the brink of debilitation. Still bound to the Osborne Doctrine, the UK is at a metaphorical crossroads. Hyperpolitical tension in the US has aggravated relations with the Asian giant and Trump continues to push a hard-line, divisive foreign policy.

Almost as though it is confronting an intergenerational play-off, it is looking increasingly likely that Britain will need to pick sides: the modern Chinese catalyst, or the traditional ‘special relationship’.

Indeed, that conflict in British foreign policy manifested itself in response to China’s imposition of security laws in Hong Kong, with the UK’s reaction being criticised for being ‘utterly inappropriate’ and labelled as a ‘cut and paste of previous statements’.

In pale contrast to the US’s initial reaction, which looked to eliminate Hong Kong’s special status to the region, Britain was cautious. Siding with Trump would almost certainly threaten high levels of Chinese investment into the British economy, just as it was about to experience a deep economic contraction.

The aforementioned dispensed ability to be politically bold against China had succumbed to deepening economic ties, and again, to some cruel irony. Michael Gove, upon announcing his support for Leave in 2016, heralded the UK’s past efforts to ‘export democratic self-government which has brought prosperity to millions’. Yet, when it comes to Hong Kong, posturing replaces pride.

The government has not done itself any favours, either. In a symbol of waning influence and chaotic internal organisation, the merger between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development has hit heavy criticism. There are claims of contemptuous disorganisation and murmurs of a slimmed-down international aid budget threaten the longevity of Britain’s reach across the world.

Reports suggest a cut of £2.5bn, but the recoiling of British influence abroad will present deeper political questions than economic ones. With funding being withdrawn or depleted, one must wonder how the vision of a global Britain can function. Perhaps a religious adherence to nationalistic forces perpetuates the lost vision of the post-war world, characterised through isolationism or international tension.

Donald Trump’s foreign policy is an embodiment of this current state – measuring pain inflicted to quantify success. Indeed, his trade war with China presents the UK with a dilemma which it will soon have to confront. Isolated and weakened, Britain will need to rely on trade deals for its economic prosperity – Brexit and the impacts of coronavirus on the British economy will painfully punctuate that point.

Obama warned that the UK would be back of the queue in trade talks in the event of Brexit happening, and Trump has displayed a flagrant disregard towards the interests of Britain. The question remains: side with a president only accountable to his ego and compulsive in judgement, or be gagged by a Chinese state hellbent on cultural purity and human rights violations to ensure economic survival?

Yes, there are other possibilities. As a matter of fact, the ensuing global crisis provoked by the coronavirus may exert more pressure on China and narrow the trend of international isolationism. Yet, Britain’s ability to confront its greatest dilemmas will define where in the world it is regarded, and what values it embraces. Will Britain cease to be great no more?

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