China Power

How Boris Johnson Will Approach UK-China Relations

The new British prime minister won’t follow in Trump’s footsteps when it comes to China, but there are some similarities.

Bonnie Girard
How Boris Johnson Will Approach UK-China Relations

Boris Johnson, left, then Britain’s foreign secretary, welcomes Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi as they meet for the UK-China Strategic Dialogue meeting in London, Dec. 20, 2016.

Credit: Ben Stansall, Pool via AP

Newly installed British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is often touted in the media as some sort of political doppelganger of U.S. President Donald Trump. In fact, the two leaders exhibit major differences on a number of issues, not the least among them being divergent attitudes and approaches to doing business with the People’s Republic of China.

On military and security issues, however, the two leaders find greater common purpose.

Johnson, while populating his Cabinet with Euroskeptics, does not seem to extend that skepticism as far as China, according to media reports.

The British Prime Minister is quoted in the South China Morning Post as having told Hong Kong-based Chinese-language broadcaster, Phoenix TV, on July 23 that “We are very enthusiastic about the Belt and Road Initiative. We are very interested in what President Xi is doing [for the plan].”

Johnson went on to say that he welcomed the 155,000 Chinese students that are in Britain, saying that they “make a massive contribution to Britain and to our society.” He also characterized Britain as “lucky” for having so many manufactured goods coming in from China.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

At the same time, Trump has portrayed the Chinese relationship in completely different terms.

For years, and continuing on into his presidency, Trump has called the Chinese government in Beijing cheats, thiefs, an economic enemy, spies, and currency manipulators, to name but a few. In terms of the charge of theft, the president has repeatedly said that China is guilty not only of stealing intellectual property and jobs, but that the theft is indeed the largest “in the history of the world.” On the campaign trail in 2016, Trump famously accused China of “raping” the United States.

In fact, just three days after Johnson publicly embraced business opportunities with China, Trump levied a new charge against China when he directed U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer (who, not coincidentally, is also leading the struggling trade negotiations with Beijing) to find a way to break the advantages China affords itself by claiming “developing country” status for its membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO).

So how are these two leaders, who since Johnson’s accession to the post of prime minister have reaffirmed the special relationship between their two respective nations, going to manage a cohesive and coordinated approach to the biggest economic and security threat they share?

The answer is probably by avoiding the business and economic issues that each leader pursues in its relationship with China, while showing a shared commitment to checking China’s attempts to disrupt freedom of navigation, particularly in the South China Sea.

Trump and Johnson may come to some interim agreement on how to treat Huawei, for example, but Johnson is in the unenviable position of not knowing how his nation’s economy is going to fare once Brexit becomes a reality (and despite repeated delays, Johnson has sworn that will happen at the end of October). If Britain is smart, and puts into place bold incentives, such as a tiny VAT and the lowest corporate business tax in Europe, it can transform itself into a magnet for investment from not only other nations in the European region, but also from China, Asia in general, and the United States.

Those measures might appeal to the true conservative that Boris Johnson is (ironically, much more of an ideological conservative than Donald Trump, yet another fundamental difference between them), but he needs political capital to make them a reality.

In the meantime, Johnson does not yet have the cards to dissuade a large potential investor such as China from increasing its portfolio in Britain.

Exports of British goods to China will also be on his mind. According to a February 2019 British Parliament research briefing, in 2017 “UK exports to China were worth £22.3 billion; imports from China were £45.2 billion, resulting in a trade deficit of -£22.9 billion.” Although Britain had “a small surplus with China on trade in services, [it was] outweighed by a deficit on trade in goods.” Overall, China accounted for 3.6 percent of U.K. exports and 7.0 percent of all U.K. imports.

Johnson, like Trump, wants to increase his exports to China, reducing the trade deficit. Unlike Trump, however, Johnson may feel that he cannot yet afford to antagonize China with measures such as tariffs and a challenge to its WTO status.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

But before Boris Johnson became prime minister, he was foreign secretary. And it was in that role that in February 2018 he told the Australian government:

One of the first things we will do with the two new colossal aircraft carriers that we have just built is send them on a freedom of navigation operation to this area, to vindicate our belief in the rules-based international system and in the freedom of navigation through those waterways which are absolutely vital for world trade.

Both British as well as American F-35s will be on board for that tour, according to the U.K. Ministry of Defense.

Thus, in the area of strategic security and freedom of the seas, Trump and Johnson seem to be of one mind. Trump will want to tie Britain down to this commitment, however, as Johnson’s promises came before he had other national interests to consider.

Without doubt, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson share strong passions to put each of their respective nations’ interests first. Their common use of colorful language to advance their positions, and their well-documented willingness to offend if necessary is seen as a sign of the similarity of both their personalities as well as their policies. But underlying these superficialities can be seen two very distinct men, politicians, and leaders. Trump is not likely to change his toolbox; it remains to be seen what adjustments Boris Johnson may make to lead his country back into a world free of the dictates of continental Europe.