Last June, only a month after François Hollande had been elected President of France, an expert on European relations at a think tank in Beijing asked me why the new French leader had yet to signal when he was coming to China. The expectation seemed to have set in that foreign leaders needed to make a bee line for Beijing once they had been elevated at home. Why the tardiness on the part of the Frenchman?
A year on and President Hollande’s waiting seems to have paid off. On a two day visit to China from April 25, Hollande was lauded in Xinhua as the first European head of state to get to China after the full leadership transition earlier in the year and evinced a statement from new Premier Li Keqiang about how “China is not looking for a trade surplus but wants to import more French goods.” The obligatory Airbus deal was signed with a potential value of US$7.7 billion.
For some, France’s warm treatment in China was an indication of how low relations between Beijing and the UK had sunk. British Prime Minister David Cameron has been to China once since 2010, but his 2011 public lecturing to former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao about the need to respect human rights and his meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2012 seem to have cooled bilateral relations. According to the Financial Times, only one Chinese vice minister has met with a British counterpart since that controversial meeting; with one other informal meeting at the same level.
In the past, high level visits between the UK and China were some of the proudest boasts of politicians between the two countries. For a time important visits between the two seemed to be occurring on a monthly or weekly basis. seemingly monthly or weekly basis, “important” visits happened. Now that these have slowed down, it might be interesting to see what the vast embassies and consulates in each country fill their time doing.
An answer to this question might come through the defensive line issues by the British Foreign Office when asked about what seems like a freeze on high level bilateral visits between China and the UK. Trade and business, they said, was up. In fact, the UK had outperformed EU partners in this area.
Norway, while not a member of the EU, is in a similar diplomatic impasse with China over the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese dissident and human rights activist, in 2010. High level visits have ground to a halt between the two ever since. Despite explaining that the procedure and decision for the award were outside the control of the government, Norway has been frozen out. And yet, like the UK, trade has been fine.
This raises two interesting questions. The first is that if economic, cultural and grass root links carry on well, is there anything wrong with a lack of ministers and politicians going back and forth to China? Perhaps not. After thirty years of hard work, perhaps government actors can now be slowly retired from the scene. Since Britain has what it wants in a bilateral relation, namely trade, official contact might not need to be so intense anymore.
The second question revolves around whether or not it is good for the EU to have one of its members, and a key one at that, sidelined in this way. England’s rivals in France might be pleased that a potential competitor for Chinese favor is out of the picture for the time being. But fortunes rise and fall. In 2008, former French President Nicholas Sarkozy was vilified in China for his meeting with the Dalai Lama. Now it is David Cameron’s turn. Who will be next? Surely some unity from the EU would be in the interests of everyone in the long term, no matter how that might disrupt short-term national interests.
Finally, for President Cameron and his advisors, this might be a good opportunity to ask some difficult questions about Britain’s China policy. In recent years, successive British leaders have advocated partnering with China on various fronts. While those aspirations might now be on hold, the officials most closely involved in running bilateral relations on both sides might want to use this quiet time to think a bit more deeply about how relations managed to end up in this state. After all, as Mao Zedong said, one should always use one’s defeats as the basis for future victory.
Kerry Brown is Executive Director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, and Professor of Chinese Politics. He was previously Head of the Asia Programme at Chatham House. He leads the Europe China Research and Advice Network (ECRAN) funded by the European Union (www.euecran.eu).