Tracing the outline of British-Chinese relations as we enter 2021 is akin to surveying the landscape after an earthquake. The global geopolitical topography remains uncertain, but the triple trauma of Brexit ambiguity, a Trump presidency, and the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic, all appear to be on the way out. In late 2017, amid what remained of the Sino-British golden era’s afterglow, I was asked to write an article discussing the year ahead. I predicted that the relationship would deteriorate far further than widely anticipated. As we enter 2021, it seems as though factors have combined to offer an opportunity for renewal. Britain seeks a new place in the world, US President Joe Biden looks to consider a new approach to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and London will even receive a new PRC ambassador. In reality, massive obstacles remain, not least PRC conduct at home and abroad, as well growing scepticism toward the PRC inside the UK Parliament. The relationship will remain precarious and has significant potential to worsen.
Say it quietly around the British who have “taken back control”, but the two critical factors that will guide the British approach to China in 2021 might well hail from beyond its border. First, Biden’s presidency looms large. The question is whether he will provide respectable leadership to liberal democracies against a more belligerent PRC in a way that Trump never could, or whether he will gently warm relations in line with the wishes of US commercial and financial entities. Perhaps the most likely outcome is that he tries to do both and satisfies no one. The EU-China investment treaty represents another prominent outside factor that will influence Sino-British relations. The deal, if ratified, demonstrates truly stratospheric levels of naivety by the EU. It is deeply troubling that in the current climate, the EU has chosen to employ a two-decade-old China engagement stance that will be as effective now as it was then. This is a Frank Sinatra farewell tour of a strategy in the sense that it is desperately outdated, tainted by association with some shady groups, and driven primarily by financial motivation. The PRC has too many interests in the UK to haphazardly walk away, but a move by Beijing to shore up relations with the EU as a means to further isolate the US, could leave the UK vulnerable as a prominent US ally.
A further development to look out for in 2021 is the emergence of a peculiar punnett square of factions in Parliament vis-à-vis China. On the right, free market fundamentalists seeking further deals with the PRC are emboldened as the UK now looks further afield beyond the EU. In the current climate of Sino-British relations, this faction is mostly dormant, but not extinct. Whilst British neoliberals were fairly easy prey for the Chinese party-state, other values-driven factions on the right have proved more troublesome. These factions have now taken a welcome realist turn away from the fairytale logic of the golden era policy toward China that on occasions bordered on national self-abasement. This group is currently in the ascendancy where UK policy toward China is concerned.
It would be foolish to suggest that only the British have agency in this drama. Those sceptical of the PRC have been helped enormously by the conduct of the party-state itself, be it forced sterilisation of women, noncompliance with the Sino-British Joint Declaration, or “diplomacy” that stretches the very meaning of the word to its limit. Troublingly, in the aftermath of the carnival of flatulent nationalism that comprised the Brexit process, some of the xenophobic elements of the British political landscape and affiliated media have now turned to China in their desire to find another “other”. The resulting lazy generalisations and ill-judged coverage will only serve to taint by association what is actually a necessary reassessment of the Sino-British relationship.
In the two remaining punnett square quarters lies the British left. A fault line over China is also emerging, though it is not yet as pronounced as that on the right. Here, the party-state and its advocates make appeals to prevent a second Cold War, to anti-racism, and to anti-colonialism. Virtuous though these aims are, they are clearly seen and employed by Beijing as tools in the service of party-state objectives. Unwillingness to speak truth to power in the case of China amongst some elements of the British (and US) left suggests the party-state and its affiliates have made progress in moving the debate. On the other side sits a more human rights-driven, liberal left that will not tolerate abuses in Xinjiang nor the disenfranchisement of the Hong Kongese. Expect some curious coalitions around China engagement in 2021: neoliberals and far left; liberal left human rights defenders and neo-conservatives.
This is the precarious situation as we enter 2021, and the year promises much that will test all concerned. There are three ongoing inquiries in the UK Parliament that may draw the PRC leadership to wheel out the “hurt feelings”. The Foreign Affairs Committee is considering “the FCDO’s (Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office) role in blocking foreign asset stripping in the UK” as well as “Xinjiang detention camps”. Meanwhile, the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee is considering “Forced labour in UK value chains” with a strong focus on Xinjiang. The PRC response to the findings of such committees could aggravate the relationship further, given that the so-called “wolf-warrior” diplomacy exhibited by PRC officials has been so spectacularly misjudged that it has managed to alienate even some of the PRC’s most staunch allies inside the British establishment. Such officials must know how these tantrums play out to a foreign audience, suggesting they are aimed primarily at a domestic audience, perhaps ultimately an audience of one.
As well as the ongoing concerns, not least Huawei disentanglement and PRC disregard for the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the UK will host the 2021 G7 Summit. This might prove to be a significant event in terms of global positioning on China. If reports are to be believed, Britain intends to use the summit to give new impetus to the D-10 group of prominent democracies. Already on the agenda are expansion of the group and coordination on issues related to the Chinese party-state, not least critical global supply chains. The test here is whether the UK will still be willing to paint a target on its back by instigating this move after an extended period spent outside of the EU.
In the PRC, the outcome of the WHO Covid investigation (expected sometime around Easter, though subject to possible delays since the Chinese authorities blocked the investigation team) could result in some diplomatic confrontations with various nations, including Britain. Whilst analysis of the year ahead rightly focuses on the Chinese Communist Party’s 100th anniversary, those with an eye on Sino-British relations might circle 5th September, 2021 in their diaries. This is the date the Hong Kong LegCo elections are scheduled and given the continuing crackdowns on those opposing Beijing, it looks increasingly like it will take the form of a particularly grim farce. Naturally, the UK will be obliged to air its dissatisfaction, and will do so. The impact on wider relations depends on the extent to which diplomatic posturing translates into policy and strategy, if at all.
At the end of 2020 no one can any longer feign ignorance about the realities of engagement with the PRC. For Britain, 2021 genuinely offers the opportunity for a new approach as it attempts to reconstruct a post-EU international identity. At this crucial time, danger lurks not only abroad but also at home. The British would do well to heed the warning of one of their finest writers, John le Carré, who died at the very end of 2020. As one of many glowing obituaries noted, le Carré was acutely aware, and critical of, the brutality of authoritarianism. But he also knew of the dangers posed by the advocates of such regimes at home, arguing that the jeopardy lay with “the western, and particularly British, enablers and louche House of Lords and City corruptionists, with palms extended to take a share of the money, however obtained and from whatever source”. As the UK struggles with its self-induced identity crisis, its approach to China will reveal the type of country it aspires to be.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and ISPI.