The Future of UK-China Relations Post-COVID-19

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson attends the Chinese New Year Reception at No. 10 Downing Street, London on January 24, 2020. Photo by Andrew Parsons/No. 10 Downing Street.

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China’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been a wake-up call for Europe. The Chinese Communist Party’s less-than-transparent handling of the outbreak of the virus, and its subsequent efforts to pass blame to the West, have hardened anti-China sentiment in many European capitals. In addition, China’s attempts to suppress freedom in Hong Kong, and its imposition of a new national security law for the region, has sharply illustrated the fact that Beijing is increasingly willing to aggressively assert its power and control in complete contravention of an internationally recognized agreement, the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984.

While the European Commission (the executive branch of the EU) has continued to appease China, even self-censoring its own report on Chinese disinformation back in April,European national leaders and politicians have adopted a tougher line. Norbert Rottgen, the Chair of the Bundestag Foreign Affairs Committee and a leading candidate to replace Angela Merkel as leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has been highly critical of the European Union’s kowtowing to Beijing.2 His calls for a more robust stance against China are now starting to be echoed in many European cities.

However, it is outside the EU, in Brexit Britain, where the strongest condemnation in Europe of China’s actions can be found today. The British government led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been by far the most vocal opponent of Beijing alongside the United States over the course of 2020.

As Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab declared back in April, it can no longer be “business as usual” with China in the wake of the global pandemic.3 And in the words of Sir Iain Duncan Smith, a former Leader of the Conservative Party and a close adviser to Mr. Johnson, “the time has come for democratic countries around the world to mount a common defence of our shared principles as a response to China’s increasingly belligerent foreign policy.”4 Great Britain has put these words into practice with its firm rebuke of China over Hong Kong, offering to grant up to three million Hong Kongers the right to move to the UK, and eventually become British citizens.5

Leading British Conservatives such as Duncan Smith have been instrumental in the establishment of the new Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) launched in June, which draws together policymakers from across the democratic world, including the United States, to counter Chinese authoritarianism. They have also been at the forefront of leading a backbench rebellion in the House of Commons against the British government’s pre-pandemic plans to allow the Chinese telecommunications giant, Huawei, a 35 percent stake in the development of the UK’s 5G network.

In the wake of mounting opposition from Members of Parliament, including the chairs of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs and Defence Committees, as well as intense opposition from the Trump Administration, Downing Street is now moving toward phasing Huawei out of the British telecommunications infrastructure on security grounds. Even Sir John Sawers, the former chief of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), has reversed his earlier, far less hawkish position on Huawei, declaring that “China is overplaying its hand and giving Western leaders no option but to stand up to it.”6

While it may take several years to remove Huawei altogether from the UK, as the company has been deeply embedded in Britain for nearly two decades, this will be a hugely significant move. Such an action would be a major blow to China’s strategic ambitions, not only in London, but across Europe as well. Many European countries will likely follow the British lead on Huawei, including Germany, the continent’s largest telecommunications market.

As the shift against Huawei and the strong stance on Hong Kong demonstrate, the British government is prepared to fundamentally alter the dynamics of the relationship with Beijing. Boris Johnson is a very different Prime Minister than his immediate predecessors, Theresa May, David Cameron, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, who all pursued a more cautious, softer approach toward dealing with China, more closely in line with the position of the European Union.

Now freed from the shackles of the EU, the Johnson government is determined to carve a new path for the UK on the world stage in the Brexit era. There is a distinctly sharper focus in London now on strengthening the Special Relationship with the United States, standing up to dictatorial regimes including Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran, and increasing the UK’s capacity to project influence and strength across the world, from the Middle East to the Pacific.

A historian and devotee of Winston Churchill, Johnson thinks differently about foreign policy compared to May and Cameron, both of whom voted against leaving the EU in the 2016 referendum. Boris is a big-picture strategic thinker, who does not like to kowtow to anyone, whether it be unelected bureaucrats in Brussels, Marxist apparatchiks in Beijing, or powerful Foreign Office mandarins in Whitehall. As the world emerges from the most deadly and devastating pandemic since the Spanish Flu over a hundred years ago, we should expect a very different UK-China relationship, one in which the British lion bares its teeth and adopts a far more adversarial approach toward the Chinese dragon.

 

About the Author

Nile Gardiner is Director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at The Heritage Foundation. Before joining Heritage in 2002, Dr. Gardiner served as a foreign policy aide to Lady Thatcher in her private office in London, assisting her with her final book, Statecraft: Strategies for a Changing World and advising her on a number of international issues. He received his M.A., M.Phil. and Ph.D. degrees in History from Yale, and a B.A. and M.A. in Modern History from Oxford University. He has testified several times before Congress on foreign policy issues and frequently provides analysis of global events for US and international television networks including Fox News Channel, Fox Business Network, CNN, Sky News, and the BBC. He is a regular contributor to The London Daily Telegraph.

1. Matt Apuzzo, “Pressured by China, EU Softens Report on Covid-19 Disinformation,” The New York Times, April 24, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/24/world/europe/disinformation-china-eu-coronavirus.html

2. “EU Defends Censorship of Letter in Chinese Newspaper,” Deutsche Welle, May 5, 2020, https://www.dw.com/en/eu-defends-censorship-of-letter-in-chinese-newspaper/a-53366422

3. Anna Mikhailova, “It Cannot Be ‘Business As Usual’ With China After Coronavirus, Dominic Raab Warns,” Daily Telegraph, April 16, 2020, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2020/04/16/can-no-longer-business-usual-china-coronavirus-dominic-raab/

4. Sir Iain Duncan Smith, “It Will Take a Multinational Effort to Rein in China,” Daily Telegraph, June 5, 2020, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/06/04/will-take-multinational-effort-rein-china/

5. “Hong Kong: UK Makes Citizenship Offer to Residents,” BBC News, July 1, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-53246899

6. Sir John Sawers, “The UK Should Bar Huawei From Its 5G Network,” Financial Times, July 5, 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/4fe3a612-f430-43dd-ad89-8f319ca80e8b

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