Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan around a year and a half ago, Britain’s relations with China have been in free fall. From the U.K.’s “interference” in Hong Kong and the banning of Huawei and CGTN to its Xinjiang-related sanctions and recent declaration of a Uyghur genocide, it has repeatedly attracted the wrath of China’s so-called wolf-warrior diplomats and state-run media. Listening to them, it would seem to be only a matter of time before Britain is targeted with punitive Australia-style treatment by Beijing.
While the risk of being hit by Beijing’s trade stick is real, too much attention has been paid to the Hu Xijins, Zhao Lijians, and Hua Chunyings of this world and not enough to the elite discussions going on inside of China. Contrary to what one might suppose after so much talk of a deterioration in Sino-British relations, Chinese think tanks and academics have remained, on the whole, relatively optimistic about the future. There are several reasons for this as became clear in the 30 or so papers and published interviews reviewed for this article.
For a start, a certain amount of post-Brexit turbulence coupled with U.S. interference in Britain’s relations with Beijing had been anticipated. This phase is regarded as temporary, however, and seems to have made Britain’s recent “anti-China” moves somewhat easier to accept. There is an awareness that the uncertainties surrounding Brexit forced various successive Tory governments to prioritize short-term political considerations over longer-term strategic planning, leading to a neglect of the U.K.’s China policy. But this is viewed as being at odds with Britain’s time-honored diplomatic traditions and therefore as likely to change.
There is also general agreement among these Chinese researchers that Britain’s decision to leave the EU has weakened the U.K.’s position in the world and that it now needs to build new alliances with like-minded partners. Many believe that by positioning itself against China, as a convener of liberal-minded democracies and staunch defender of human rights, Britain is attempting to preserve what is left of its “great power status” and influence in the world. So, however much Chinese academics might disapprove of Britain’s anti-China behavior, there seems to be a degree of understanding, or perhaps wishful thinking, among many of these observers as to why Britain is behaving this way – it effectively has to.
Much of the same rationale applies to Britain’s recent need to move closer to the United States, though in this case Washington is seen as seeking to exploit Britain’s current weaknesses. A United Kingdom now out of the EU is regarded as being much more dependent on the U.S. while at the same time being of less strategic value for Washington. Chinese analysts believe that both the Trump and Biden administrations have been using this growing imbalance to Washington’s own advantage and against China. Leaving aside Britain’s oft-mentioned “cold war mentality” and “colonial mind-set” as the reason for the U.K.’s harder line against Beijing, the U.S. appears to be at least as much to blame as Downing Street itself for Britain’s diplomatic volte-face. Ironically, this often leads to a sense that the U.K. is as much a victim of U.S. interference as an actual aggressor toward China on issues such as Huawei, Xinjiang, the South China Sea, and even Hong Kong.
That being said, there is a general consensus in Chinese think tanks and academic circles that this Anglo-American rapprochement is, once again, only temporary. As one observer put it, “where there is pressure, there will be resistance.” Too many contradictions are also said to exist between the ideals of “Global Britain” and alleged U.S. “unilateralism,” “protectionism,” and “habitual bullying.” Tensions are therefore bound to arise, they say, leading to a recalibration of the “special relationship” in the medium term. As Britain gradually works through its differences with the EU and consolidates its other alliances, its dependence on the United States will start to decrease again, most of these analysts predict, leaving more room for Sino-British cooperation. Furthermore, China’s potential value to Britain in terms of trade and investments is seen as far outweighing that of the U.S. A cash-strapped and secession-prone United Kingdom simply cannot afford to forfeit its relationship with Beijing, they argue. This, then, is another reason for hope.
A more tangible source of optimism for these researchers comes from the current British government led by Boris Johnson, which is seen as having frequently signaled its resolve to continue engaging with Beijing despite both pressure from the United States and a growing anti-China backlash at home. The government’s refusal to endorse Parliament’s recent genocide declaration is one such example. Its decision, last year, to remove Huawei from its 5G networks by 2027 is another. The latter was both strongly condemned by Chinese observers and yet also often taken as proof of Downing Street’s commitment to resist U.S. interference and of Britain’s reluctance to “take sides,” at least when it comes to economic issues. Moreover, by setting Huawei’s removal date so far into the future, the UK government is seen by some as having deliberately left itself room for maneuver.
Goodwill signals coming from Downing Street have certainly helped bolster such optimism. Boris Johnson’s pro-China comments in particular have not gone unnoticed. From his initial enthusiasm for Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to his being “fervently Sinophile,” these repeated reminders that Britain is intent on improving ties “whatever the occasional political difficulties” are frequently cited and appear to have had the desired effect on at least a part of the Chinese intelligentsia. Also important have been the occasional comments made by one of China’s most ardent critics within the government, Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab. His desire to avoid the U.K. being sucked into a new cold war with China as well as his reluctance to restrict trade with countries with poor human rights records are seen as further evidence of the U.K.’s desire to pursue a “twin-track” or “two-faced” foreign policy toward China – allowing for cooperation to coexist alongside confrontation. Britain’s recent “Integrated Review” has also been interpreted in this light.
Such an approach may be criticized in China and Boris Johnson’s cabinet may be regarded as prone to “populist,” “adventurist,” and “short-sighted” behavior, but it is also seen as an attempt by the government to fight off the more radical “anti-China” groupings that currently dominate Britain’s China debate. Anti-PRC posturing is often understood by Chinese observers as being de rigueur at this time. To keep the Conservative Party united and strong, Number 10 has to make some concessions to the Sino-skeptic camp, some argue, even at the expense of its short-term relations with Beijing. The risk, they say, is that the government ends up being pushed too far in this direction and starts crossing CCP red lines. A proper fallout with Beijing might then become unavoidable.
A particularly salient feature of these discussions is an apparent belief among such analysts in the fundamental and supposedly immutable characteristic of British diplomacy – its interest-based pragmatism. This is best illustrated by two quotes. The first is from Xi Jinping in 2014: “History is the root of reality […] Only by understanding where a country has come from […] can we understand both where this country is heading and where it will not go in the future.” The second is by former British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston in 1848: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.” Palmerston’s words were repeatedly quoted by different analysts to typify the essence of British foreign policy down to, and including, the present day. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of history in Chinese thinking. Furthermore, if a Chinese school of international relations can be said to exist, it is arguably more rooted in history than any in the West.
Other British foreign policy traits frequently mentioned by these observers include: its flexibility and realism (or pragmatism – not the international relations theory); a reluctance to enter into permanent alliances or to make clear-cut choices; and its adherence to liberalism, free trade and, more recently, multilateralism. Even its current “two-faced” approach to diplomacy is seen as being typical of Britain’s past. Quite striking in some of these discussions is an apparent underlying belief, or faith, that whoever comes to power in Britain will, sooner or later, adopt most of these characteristics regardless of their political background.
Like much of the West, the U.K. is, of course, also described as “arrogant” and “interventionist,” prone to “imperialistic thinking” and to “applying double standards.” But these boilerplate criticisms tend to take a back seat in this particular debate. Memories of the recent past actually seem to afford Britain considerable credit. The fact that the U.K. was the first major Western country to recognize the PRC has not been forgotten. Despite opposition from the U.S., Britain was also the first major European power to sign up to the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). In addition, it wins plaudits for its early enthusiasm for China’s BRI, its assistance in promoting the internationalization of the RMB, and its past role within the European Union in helping curb anti-Beijing “protectionism” by other EU member states. When it comes to trade, Britain is often seen as a no-nonsense partner, one that has been less concerned by its trade deficit with China than most other Western countries.
For all Britain’s flaws and declining strength, a definite sense of respect and even admiration for the U.K. is palpable in many of these observers’ comments. Britain’s disproportionate influence in the world compared with its size is readily acknowledged. Although these analysts never go so far as to claim that China might actually need Britain as a partner, they occasionally describe the China-U.K. relationship as a potential “model” for China’s relations with other Western countries and as important for China’s next round of reform and opening up. A breakthrough with the United Kingdom could lead to breakthroughs elsewhere in the world, some say. What’s more, too many synergies between the two countries exist for them to be overlooked. From science and technology to education and finance, both sides would benefit from increased cooperation, Chinese academics argue. Both countries are advocates of globalization, multilateralism, and free trade, and are also viewed as ideal partners on a number of global governance issues.
Notwithstanding the recent verbal spats between London and Beijing, cautious optimism seems to prevail among this particular segment of the Chinese elite. How representative these views are of those held inside of Zhongnanhai is difficult to say. Think tanks and academics are certainly consulted and listened to by China’s apparatchiks. But the views they express in writing are not necessarily those expressed behind closed doors. Tellingly, not a single one of the 30 or so papers reviewed for this article contained any form of criticism of the CCP’s own recent behavior and only one included any policy recommendations. Although assessments ranged from the very optimistic to the relatively pessimistic, they nevertheless contained a degree of uniformity, suggesting, perhaps, some conformity to political imperatives. In an attempt both to substantiate and update some of these opinions, interview requests were sent out to eight Chinese researchers just before and immediately after Beijing imposed its retaliatory sanctions on a number of individuals and entities in the EU (including MERICS). Unfortunately, only one researcher ended up responding, saying that it “wasn’t yet suitable” for him to have such a conversation. The views presented here should therefore be treated with a degree of caution.
Nevertheless, if one were to boldly assume that at least some of these opinions and beliefs are also shared by part of the CCP leadership, this could mean that Britain might still have some leeway before being definitively put into Beijing’s bad books and becoming the target of punitive measures. As previously mentioned, a period of turbulence in Sino-British relations had been anticipated by many of these observers and this is expected to continue in the short term. Recent tit-for-tat sanctions on British individuals and organizations are therefore best viewed as China asserting itself as now being on an equal footing with other major powers rather than as the beginning of a darker chapter in China-U.K. relations. As long as the British government continues to signal its desire to carry on engaging with Beijing and so long as it does not cross any of China’s thicker red lines, the U.K. could probably be spared an Australia-style treatment or worse.
Britain is still too important for China to lose. At least, this is what these expert opinions suggest. What they fail to recognize, however, is that the relationship goes both ways. London has its own red lines when it comes to protecting the values it believes in. Contrary to what most of these analysts imply, the future of Sino-British relations depends not only on Britain’s future behavior, but also on the PRC’s.