British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond’s April 2016 visit to Hong Kong wasn’t unusual because he warned the Chinese government over human rights infringements, or defended the territory’s long tradition of the rule of law. Such is par for the course for British diplomats. What made it unusual was that this was the first time a foreign secretary had visited Hong Kong in five years.
Since Britain handed over Hong Kong to China, the former colony has proven to be a thorn in the Anglo-Sino relationship. While no longer sovereign over Hong Kong, the UK hoped that institutions that made the territory such a success—a market economy, freedom of speech and the rule of law—would continue under the One Country, Two Systems regime. Consequently, the UK pledged to stand up for Hong Kong’s liberties after it was returned to China. But ever since China canceled or downgraded diplomatic meetings with British officials in displeasure of David Cameron’s reception of the Dalai Lama in 2012, the Prime Minister has been noticeably quiet where it concerns Hong Kong, even in the face of the largest pro-democracy protests since the 1997 handover and the recent disappearances of booksellers who had printed material that criticized Beijing.
This comes as no accident. Britain has refocused its relationship with China on trade, according Chinese President Xi Jinping a state visit last year. Later, it frustrated the United States by joining the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
While the UK might stick up for human rights—as Hammond did on his visit—the message coming from London is clear: when it comes down to it, trade trumps human rights and other political concerns. China critics despair that for short and medium term economic gains, London is kowtowing to Beijing.
Objectively, a shift in British policy for trading purposes makes sense; however, when put in context of Britain’s decidedly benign relationships with its other former colonies, this shift seems less logical.
Britain has generally pursued a post-colonial foreign policy that aims to bolster democratic and liberal norms; even when it uses force, it often does so for humanitarian reasons or to uphold the will of the international community.
This approach is best reflected in Britain’s post-colonial infrastructure, which is based more on soft rather than hard. The Commonwealth champions democracy and human rights (as well as sports and culture); Rhodes Scholars are often public relations triumphs; and the “special” relationships with former settler colonies—the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand—underpin global politics, culture and commerce. Unlike countries like France, which has stayed militarily involved in its former colonies to this day, Britain’s interventions in its former colonies have been few and far between. For example, although France has intervened in former African colonies dozens of times since decolonization, Britain’s sole such intervention in sub-Saharan Africa was in Sierra Leone.
While realpolitik certainly plays into British foreign policy and its decisions to go to war, in recent decades, it has been violations of international norms—like internationally-recognized borders, human rights and democracy—that have prompted intervention. And Britain has applied those ideas universally. The Blair Doctrine—itself a form of historical legacy rooted in Britain’s sense of itself as a historically important nation with a duty in the world—was applied to ex-colonies and non-ex-colonies alike: by Prime Minister Tony Blair in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, and Iraq (incorrectly, as it were); a version of it has been applied by David Cameron in Libya, Syria and Iraq.
That’s what makes Britain’s turn toward China and away from Hong Kong puzzling. For the first time in decades, it seems the Treasury is setting China policy, not the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
And it’s not just in China. Britain went from informally banning Narendra Modi from the UK (it didn’t accord him diplomatic immunity as an opposition leader and didn’t promise he wouldn’t be arrested in relation to communal riots in 2012) to welcoming the Indian Prime Minister with a state visit, shortly after the Chinese one in 2015, in order to boost UK-Indian trade ties.
But these attitudes aren’t unprecedented. In fact, such a trade-based foreign policy resembles a much older historical legacy. Trade was the foundation upon which the Empire was founded—Singapore, after all, was founded by the East India Trading Company, and Hong Kong was itself won in a trade war. Today’s Asia policy is, in a weird sense, Empire redux.
The difference is that while trade was once the vanguard of British engagement, today, it is its vestige. Britain, having lost its empire, hasn’t so much found one role, but two, based in two different imperial legacies. It is now a regional power, not a global one (albeit its ‘region’ is decidedly large–and includes the Mediterranean, Levant, Europe, and much of Africa). In those regions—which include Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan—it is mounting a full-throated defense of liberal norms. But where it can’t project force, like in Asia, it has shifted to more pragmatic, soft powered-based relationships, principally based on trade.
If history is any guide, however, Britain will be unable to achieve its goals in Asia by focusing on trade alone. The East India Company-ruled India was absorbed into the Empire. Trade with China was established only by naval flotilla, (multiple) Opium Wars and the Boxer Rebellion intervention. Singapore and Hong Kong—both trading cities—were also British naval bases. And of course, when the rising Japanese hegemon disturbed order in the Asia-Pacific region, Britain had to defend its territories (and trading prerogatives) during World War II.
Asia is a very different place today. Britain is not about to use military force there, nor should it. In an era of limited resources, it is wise to refocus as a regional power; in any case, imperial ambitions are no longer appropriate. But that doesn’t mean it should eschew Asian geopolitics altogether. If there is one lesson Britain can learn from its historic adventures, it’s that unsettled politics ultimately disrupt trade, no matter how distinct the particular issues seem. Democratic norms and a respect of human rights, after all, contribute to stability, as does the fair settlement of multilateral issues like border disputes. That Asia— especially China—is beset with challenges on all of these fronts is a significant risk for any country seeking to do business there and to develop a long-term economic relationship.
A foreign policy that champions trade while remaining myopic on politics, democracy and human rights doesn’t just contradict Britain’s principles—it will ultimately be counterproductive to its commercial ambitions.
Scott Bade is co-author of More Human: Designing a World Where People Come First. He tweets at @scottabade. This article has previously been published on the EastWest Institute Policy Innovation Blog.