Features | Diplomacy

UK-China Relations: From Gold to Dust

The rapid recent souring of British perceptions of China has as much to do with domestic factors as American pressure.

By Thomas des Garets Geddes for
UK-China Relations: From Gold to Dust

Prime Minister Boris Johnson points at performers dressed as lions as he welcomes members of the British Chinese community for Chinese New Year celebrations outside 10 Downing Street on January 24, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Matt Dunham

In just a few months, the United Kingdom’s overall policy toward China has changed dramatically. Until recently, Downing Street was famously defining itself as “China’s best partner in the West” and was committed to intensifying its proclaimed “golden era” of relations with Beijing. Britain was the first G7 country to join the Chinese-founded Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), described itself as the most open Western economy to Chinese investment and promoted an economic approach within the European Union that largely favored Chinese interests. Just before taking over as prime minister in July of last year, Boris Johnson insisted that his government would be very “pro-China” and “very enthusiastic about the Belt and Road Initiative.” Since then, however, the U.K. has become one of China’s most vocal critics, infuriating Beijing with its removal of Huawei from its 5G network, its decision to provide millions of Hong Kongers a pathway to British citizenship and its plans to clamp down on Chinese investments. 

How does one explain this startling volte-face? What have been its main drivers? Much attention has focused on the United States’ influence over the U.K.’s China policy. While this article will argue that pressure from the U.S. has played an important role, domestic dynamics are key to understanding this radical U-turn.

Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak followed by its unprecedented assertiveness abroad seem to have acted as a wake-up call for many in Britain. In the words of Sir John Sawers, the former MI6 chief, “The last six months have revealed more about China under President Xi Jinping than the previous six years.” While Xi’s regime has not changed overnight, the coronavirus outbreak was perhaps the first time that Britons fully realized that decisions taken in Beijing could also have life-threatening consequences for them. Furthermore, it exposed their country’s overreliance on an authoritarian regime for vital goods such as ventilators and personal protective equipment. Britons, like many others, came to the sobering realization that if they were to get into the Chinese Communist Party’s bad books, Xi could simply decide to turn off the supply tap.

Britain’s press and the general public debate, which for more than four years had been dominated by issues related to Brexit, began to shift its attention toward this new threat. Beijing’s apparent propensity to cover up critical information, silence innocent civilians and influence international organizations was laid bare and widely condemned. But, far from engaging in any form of mea culpa, China, encouraged by an increasingly hostile U.S., decided it was time to assert itself rather than to eat humble pie. In the West, this proved a PR disaster. From China’s so-called “wolf warrior” diplomats and extensive disinformation campaigns to its crackdown on Hong Kong and irredentist posturing, Beijing succeeded at presenting itself as a much graver threat than had been hitherto understood. Its intensified crackdown on Xinjiang’s Uyghur population has only added to its rapidly deteriorating international image. Meanwhile, Chinese attempts at meddling within the U.K. – by spying, manipulating politicians and controlling academic research – have made headlines. A new sense of vulnerability vis-à-vis China has emerged, not just in terms of supply chains but also in terms of the Chinese government’s perceived attacks on liberal democracies and their values. It has suddenly dawned on many Britons that China’s rise to great power status is no longer a future prospect, but an uncomfortable reality that has to be dealt with in the present.

This change of mood has allowed staunch critics of Xi’s regime to come to the fore in Britain’s China debate. Gone are the days when calls to confront China were considered “idiotic” and criticized for endangering Sino-British trade ties. (Ask the former defense minister Gavin Williamson what happened when he announced a Freedom of Navigation Operation in the South China Sea in 2019.) 

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One particularly vocal China critic has been the Foreign Affairs Committee chairman and Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat. Sensing the tide of public opinion turning, he recently founded the China Research Group (CRG) along with other senior Tory MPs. Modeled on the pro-Brexit European Research Group, it is a sort of cross-over between a think tank and a lobby group. It organizes debates, distributes research and is helping whip up support inside and outside Parliament for the U.K. to adopt a harder line on China. Had Boris Johnson not changed his decision on Huawei in July, he would no doubt have suffered a much larger rebellion than the 40 Tory MPs who came out against his policy in March. A humiliating defeat in Britain’s House of Commons would not have boded well for the remaining part of his prime ministerial mandate. 

Meanwhile, the public has grown increasingly hostile to China. One recent poll showed 52 percent approving the ban on Huawei, despite being aware of the damage it might cause to trade ties with China, compared with just 16 percent who were opposed. Britain’s intelligence agencies and its Ministry of Defense, as well as various non-governmental organizations, have also been increasing their pressure on Downing Street to adopt a tougher stance on China. None of these forces are new, but the coronavirus crisis and subsequent outcry over Beijing’s misdeeds has given them the momentum that they were previously lacking.

Public opinion has been both a catalyst and a product of this trend. An aggregate of surveys conducted by YouGov over the past year shows only 18 percent of Britons having a positive view of China, a figure that has almost certainly worsened in recent months. Indeed, half of British citizens say their opinion of China has been impacted “negatively” since the outbreak. Fully 60 percent now see China as a “force for bad” in the world and as a “threat” to their country. Another recent poll suggests that as many as 42 percent of people in the U.K. actually want their government to adopt a stance towards China that is at least as aggressive as U.S. President Donald Trump’s.

Much like in the U.S., Sino-skepticism in London has become bipartisan. The Labor Party, which had been relatively quiet on China in recent years, has been riding this popular “anti-China” wave with gusto since its change of leadership in April. Not only has its new leader, Keir Starmer, voiced support for Number 10’s recent clashes with Beijing; he has also urged it to go further. Other prominent shadow ministers have severely criticized the Tories, in power since 2010, for their naive and fawning attitude toward China. The Liberal Democrats, traditionally the third political force in the U.K., have followed suit. The worry now among Tory leaders is not so much that they might be perceived as being too hard on China, but as being too soft. 

Yet for Johnson’s pro-Brexit government, making China into Britain’s number one opponent has its advantages. Having a common enemy has always served as a useful tool to unite people, nations or even political parties. A deeply divided post-Brexit Britain, and its Conservative Party, are in need of just this. At the same time, the government has sought to use Beijing as a scapegoat for, and distraction from, its own botched handling of the coronavirus outbreak – with some success. According to a survey by the Tony Blair Institute in June, more Britons (49 percent) held the Chinese government responsible for the severity of the pandemic in the U.K. than their own government (40 percent). Similar results have been found by other polling institutes. Not bad for a government that became the world’s laughingstock for its disastrous herd immunity approach just a few months ago. 

Domestically, Number 10 is also under pressure to prove that its post-Brexit “Global Britain” strategy is not just empty rhetoric. Brexiteers are keen to show that, freed from the EU’s shackles, Britain can now have a truly independent foreign policy that puts the U.K.’s interests and national security first. British diplomats have reported coming under pressure to demonstrate global leadership on a range of international issues. China has provided a perfect stage on which to present and give substance to this policy. Sending a Royal Navy carrier group to the Indo-Pacific region next year with plans to set up a presence in China’s sphere of influence has been one such move. Deciding to break the terms of a pre-handover memorandum with China, in which the United Kingdom said it would not grant right of abode to Hong Kong’s British National (Overseas) passport holders has been another. The latter has also had the added benefit of allowing notoriously anti-migrant Brexiteers to present their approach to foreign policy as humanitarian. This has been a rare PR success for the Johnson government. Among those Britons aware of this policy, almost three times as many approve the government’s Hong Kong policy as oppose it.

The growing wave of Sino-skepticism is not specific to the U.K., of course. It has been informed, shaped and encouraged by public debates and government actions across the world. The Five Eyes, the EU, Japan and India have all decided to confront China, albeit in different ways. Now out of the EU, the U.K. is in need of new and strengthened alliances. Aligning itself overtly with decisions emanating from Brussels would, in the eyes of many, be political suicide. The U.K. must move closer to the U.S. and other Western allies or risk being ostracized. 

A decision to keep Huawei in its 5G network despite repeated American warnings would have had a dire effect on Britain’s vaunted “special relationship” with the U.S. To risk jeopardizing its intelligence, military and technological ties with its most important ally and the world’s leading power would be reckless at this point. Number 10 has to give Washington some face. The White House is also seeking to leverage Britain’s post-Brexit need for free trade agreements to lure the U.K. into its longer-term “anti-China” strategy. How this might play out under a potential Biden administration remains to be seen, but some compromise will be required. The U.S. has certainly had considerable influence over Britain’s recent change of heart on China, but it has not been its key driver as some would like to believe. The reality has been much messier and has involved a series of entanglements between both international and domestic factors. 

At present, Britain appears to have no coherent strategy on China. Already in March last year, Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee was warning that “there does not appear to be a clear sense either across Government or within the FCO of what the overarching theme of a new policy towards China should be.” Number 10 was loath to admit this, but nevertheless agreed to “find opportunities to set out more detail on the UK Government’s approach to China over the next 18 months.” While the lack of a clearly defined China strategy may not be a driver per se, it seems to have enabled or at least facilitated the U.K.’s sudden reversal of its approach to China in a very short space of time. The government’s piecemeal approach to Beijing is dangerous. Confronting China, while sometimes necessary, should not be an end in itself and should not overlook the many areas of common interest that Britain (and the rest of the world) still has with Beijing. 

Boris Johnson would probably agree. In a recent interview, he stressed that he did not want to become a “knee-jerk Sinophobe on every issue” and wanted to “continue to engage” with China. Yet one man alone will not be able to derail the many forces driving Britain’s policy lurch. U.K.-China relations look set to remain strained.

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Thomas des Garets Geddes is a junior analyst for the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) in Berlin, Germany.