05.08.2020 Author: Vladimir Terehov

China – Great Britain: the End of the “Golden Era”?


The title of this article, to a certain extent answering its own question, reflects the author’s understanding of the current state of Sino-British relations which have been the focus of increased press coverage in both countries since the beginning of this year. In particular, the Chinese newspaper Global Times recently posed a similar (admittedly milder) version of this question.

This question from the Chinese expert was directly prompted by growing British involvement in the Hong Kong issue – albeit this had been seen previously – as well as by a sharp change in London’s stance vis-a-vis cooperation with the Chinese company Huawei which is among the world leaders in the field of advanced information technology.

Let us first recall when and in what context the very definition of a “golden era” in Sino-UK relations first appeared. This expression was used by former British Prime Minister David Cameron in October 2015 when evaluating the results of the recent UK visit by Chinese leader Xi Jinping. One of the main outcomes was the conclusion of a raft of trade and investment agreements (mainly in the energy sector – primarily nuclear) totaling some USD 50 billion. According to UK Treasury forecasts at that time, China was set to become the country’s second most important foreign trade partner by the mid-2020s.

However, even back then there were dissenting voices – both at home and more discernibly overseas – of those who were opposed to Sino-British relations and who were claiming that London was beginning to look like “a panting puppy” trying to keep up with its new master.

Yet right up until the beginning of this year, faced with the search for alternatives to its crumbling ties with the EU, UK leaders more or less successfully defended themselves against all manner of attacks from these “well-wishers” in respect of developing relations with China. Of course there were problems in the relationship but they could be characterized as “routine” and “a roughness”, and these things can happen between partners.

The afore-mentioned “roughness” stems mainly from the troubled situation in Hong Kong, which was returned to the PRC in 1997 following Britain’s 99-year “lease” of the city. It’s worth recalling that the corresponding agreement was concluded between the UK and imperial China, that is, the PRC’s legal predecessor, at the end of the 19th century. This event itself was one of the outcomes of the two “Opium Wars” – one of the most shameful episodes of not only European colonialism, but of human history in its entirety.

London continues to this day to position itself as a party which retains certain “obligations” towards Hong Kong. As such, once every six months or so, some or other section at the Foreign Office issues some or other paper documenting all manner of “violations” in the city. For its part, Beijing reacts on a similarly one-off basis, albeit somewhat lamely and, as they say, without bigotry.

Things continued in this vein until the turn of 2019-2020, at which point the global situation began to sharply escalate, the central element of which is ever increasingly becoming the state of relations between its two leading powers, the US and China respectively. This in turn restricts the room for maneuver for all the other players in the global political game – the UK, of course being no exception.

You have to make a choice that looks sufficiently predetermined in advance. Moreover, Beijing has finally decided to put an end to the sporadic outbreaks of anarchy provoked in recent years by groups of extremist young “protesters” who have annoyed the majority of the city’s respectable residents. London has thrown its weight behind the United States’ sharply intensified anti-Chinese propaganda campaign in the wake of the Chinese Parliament drawing up and adopting its “Hong Kong Security Law.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson already signaled on 1 July  ​​his willingness to grant British citizenship to three million Hong Kong subjects, which cannot be seen as anything other than a crude propaganda attack on Beijing. For it is extremely doubtful that the number of Hong Kong subjects (potentially) willing to take advantage of this opportunity could even amount to the thousands in total. What are China and the UK in the modern world?

However, a much more important signal about the essence of what has been happening in Sino-British relations over recent months is the radical change in London’s stance over the role of Huawei in the project to upgrade the national telecommunications network to the next- generation 5G technology.

The author would like to emphasize once again that today Huawei is one of the world leaders in the field of advanced IT-networks and partnering with the company to implement this project affords the UK many advantages. These include the company’s healthy financial position given that its annual turnover increased by 19% in 2019, amounting to some USD 120 billion at a net profit of around USD 9 billion.

These are evidently the very facts British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had in mind when defending at the end of January this year the need to preserve the previously-concluded agreement for Huawei’s participation in the installation of a national 5G system. This was a very difficult thing to do in the context of the ongoing trade war with China being waged by the US, that is to say, the UK’s key ally.

Huawei found itself at the very heart of this dispute as it is accused by Washington of working hand in glove with the Chinese intelligence services, thereby allegedly jeopardizing the security of both the US and its closest allies alike. In particular, just such a threat can be seen for the “Five Eyes” international intelligence network of the main Anglo-Saxon countries.

However, there can hardly be any doubt that Washington is actually striving to exclude a real and particularly competent competitor from world markets in an extremely promising and lucrative field of commerce.

Be that as it may, but by mid-June cracks had already started to appear in the UK’s last line of defense against attacks from its closest ally which were encouraging London to descend into full-blown hostility in its relations with China. Accordingly, Beijing began talking about the strengthening position of “hard liners” within the British leadership over its political policy towards China. A month later, Boris Johnson announced the government’s decision to terminate cooperation with Huawei, which caused an understandable reaction in Beijing, with the latter threatening to adopt “retaliatory measures”.

However, it is noteworthy that it will take a full 7 years to implement London’s decision on Huawei’s “complete withdrawal” from the British market. This time frame cannot but evoke memories of Hodja Nasreddin’s commitment to teach the donkey to read in 10 years. In any case, such a cautious approach to China would seem natural in the context of the UK’s looming “post-Brexit isolation.”

Nevertheless, Beijing is apparently not mistaken about the very fact of London’s increasingly “hard line” stance on China. Yet more evidence of this could be seen in The Times newspaper report of 14 July about plans to send a group of Royal Navy ships led by its newest aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth “to the Far East at the beginning of next year.” The group will also comprise two Type-45 destroyers, two Type-23 frigates and one nuclear submarine.

The purpose of the expedition is to demonstrate readiness to counter the PRC’s “increasingly assertive” policy in the region. The term itself (increasingly assertive) was popular at the beginning of the past decade, but has not been used in Western anti-Chinese propaganda since then. This “demonstration” will be conducted in the form of joint exercises with the US and Japanese Navies.

In the light of this and other evidence of deteriorating bilateral relations, the question is now being asked in China over whether the UK is in fact preparing for a new “Opium War”.

There has been no British military presence here for a long time – almost from the mid-60s, when London announced the end of any such activity in the region “east of Suez.” It should be noted that this happened at a time when both the UK’s internal situation and foreign position looked much more favorable than they do today. In other words, returning to this region now could prove to be too much of a trouble for the UK.

There have long been signs of “testing the ground” for some kind of restoration of the UK’s military presence in the Far East. In this regard it’s worth recalling in particular the 2017 visit to Japan by Theresa May – Boris Johnson’s predecessor as British Prime Minister.

The “golden era” of Sino-British relations was short-lived. However, world events are now accelerating very rapidly, with the most troubling aspect of that being the lack of any clarity over how they will develop in general, and in regard to Sino-UK relations in particular.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.