Like many of its global counterparts, the United Kingdom is in desperate need of a China strategy.
Many of the world’s middling to large economies have benefited from inward Chinese investment since the global financial crisis of 2008. For over a decade, China’s extraordinary wealth offered an obvious way out of recession when options for investment elsewhere were limited.
Fast forward to 2021, and the decision to woo an authoritarian government with alleged ambitions to challenge the United States as the primary global superpower looks naïve.
China has become a hot issue in British politics over the past 12 months, as lawmakers and activists have become aware of how much the UK relies on a country that stands against many of the things that it claims to uphold. And many in London are worried that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has neither the time nor imagination to adequately handle one of Britain’s greatest foreign challenges.
In recent months, Johnson has approved sanctions against Chinese officials over human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and condemned China for retaliatory sanctions against British lawmakers. At the same time, however, he has also insisted he is “fervently Sinophile” and warned against starting a “new Cold War on China.”
Johnson’s government recently published a review of the country’s post-Brexit foreign affairs, in which it was noted that China “will contribute more to global growth than any other country in the next decade,” and economies such as the UK will “need to engage with China and remain open to Chinese trade and investment.” It also, not unreasonably, points out that if global challenges like climate change are to be adequately addressed, the international community will require Beijing’s cooperation.
However, the report also acknowledges in tempered language that China is a “systemic competitor” and “the biggest state-based threat to the UK’s economic security.”
This has left many in the UK wondering exactly where Johnson’s head and heart lie when it comes to what he admits is the likely the greatest challenge to Western democracy.
Even those who’ve worked closely with Johnson struggle to present a single view of his stance.
Guto Harri, Johnson’s former director of communications during his time as London mayor, points to their trips to Beijing in 2008, as Johnson took the Olympic and Paralympic flags back to London in preparation for the 2012 Games, as partly informing his view of the country.
“It was a strange time to be in China. We were there on September 17, just two days after Lehman Brothers had filed for bankruptcy,” Harri said. “There was a striking juxtaposition between the collapse of a huge American bank while China was dazzling the world with its show of strength.”
However, he felt Johnson was not as smitten as others in the UK: “When one of us said how amazing the ceremony had been, Boris said ‘yes, if you like humanity being reduced to speckles of light in a kaleidoscope.’ He instinctively didn’t like the uniformity of the communist state.”
This story tallies with the view his allies are putting forward: that Johnson sees the need for a balanced approach to China that doesn’t discourage global trade but reduces the reliance on Chinese-state backed investment and technology.
China has systematically become a leader in the technologies of the future while also investing in other nations’ infrastructure projects. Simultaneously, it has become one of the most sophisticated rivals to the West in terms of cyber warfare, creating the problem that if you want to take advantage of cheaper Chinese 5G technology, or other innovations, you do so at the alleged risk of Beijing stealing state secrets and intellectual property.
Though the Chinese government has repeatedly and vehemently denied these accusations, British lawmakers are well aware of the apparent conundrum. In the last decade, the UK has become reliant on China for a variety of critical infrastructure.
The state-owned China General Nuclear Power Corporation has a 33.5% stake in the UK’s under-construction Hinkley Point C nuclear power station and has invested in other future nuclear projects. China National Offshore Oil Corporation also claims that it provides “more than 25% of the UK’s oil production, and 10% of the country’s energy needs.”
And despite the UK’s plan to remove equipment made by the Chinese tech giant Huawei from the nation’s 5G network by 2027, those networks are already up and running.
On top of this, British investment in China has grown significantly post-Brexit. The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) published a report last year showing that in 2018, investment from the UK to China grew 150% to $2.9 billion on the previous year.
Despite the wishes of hawks, China is a reality that Britain cannot wish away, as much as some critics of Beijing believe Johnson is on their side.
People who worked with Johnson during his stint as foreign secretary say there was nothing to suggest he was a Sinophile. During two years in the job, Johnson visited India, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, but never China. This, according to those familiar, annoyed Chinese diplomats who were eager to point out China invested more in the UK than any other European nation.
China hawks might also take comfort in the recently published review and its commitment to lead a global ocean deployment that will visit the Indo-Pacific with the US and other allies – a move that will doubtless irritate Beijing, which has accused Washington of attempting to sow discord in the region .
However, there is equally compelling evidence of the Prime Minister’s fondness for China. Leaving aside the kind words he has written as a columnist for the Daily Telegraph (at the height of the avian flu crisis, Johnson wrote that the “emergence of China and its integration into the world economy has been a major spur to growth and a deterrent to inflation. It is an unalloyed good”), members of his family have strong ties to China.