China has become a hot issue in British politics over the past 12 months, as lawmakers and campaigners have come to realize how much the UK depends on a country that opposes many of the things that ‘he claims to defend. And many in London fear Prime Minister Boris Johnson has neither the time nor the imagination to adequately deal with one of Britain’s biggest foreign challenges.
Johnson’s government recently released a post-Brexit foreign affairs review, in which it was noted that China “will contribute more to global growth than any other country over the next decade,” and than economies such as the UK “will need to engage with China and remain open to Chinese trade and investment.” He also stresses, not unreasonably, that if global challenges such as climate change are to be properly addressed, the the international community will need Beijing’s cooperation.
However, the report also acknowledges in tempered language that China is a “systemic competitor” and “the greatest state threat to UK economic security”.
It has made many in the UK wonder exactly where Johnson’s head and heart are when it comes to what he admits to be possibly the biggest challenge for Western democracy.
Even those who have worked closely with Johnson find it difficult to present a single view of his position.
Guto Harri, Johnson’s former communications director when he was mayor of London, highlights their trips to Beijing in 2008, as Johnson brought back the Olympic and Paralympic flags to London in preparation for the 2012 Games, as partly informing his vision of the country. .
“It was a weird time to be in China. We were there on September 17, just two days after Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy,” Harri said. “There was a striking juxtaposition between the collapse of a huge US bank as China dazzled the world with its show of force.”
However, he felt that Johnson was not as smitten as others in the UK: “When one of us said how amazing the ceremony was, Boris said ‘yes, if you like that humanity is reduced to specks of light in a kaleidoscope. “He instinctively didn’t like the uniformity of the Communist state.”
This story fits with the view his allies hold: that Johnson sees the need for a balanced approach from China that does not discourage global trade but reduce reliance on China-backed investment and technology. Chinese state.
China has consistently become a leader in future technologies while investing in infrastructure projects in other countries. Simultaneously, it has become one of the West’s more sophisticated cyberwar rivals, creating the problem that if you want to take advantage of cheaper Chinese 5G technology or other innovations, you do so at the presumed risk of fly Beijing. state secrets and intellectual property.
Although the Chinese government has repeatedly and vehemently denied these accusations, British lawmakers are well aware of the apparent conundrum. Over the past decade, the UK has become dependent on China for a variety of critical infrastructure.
And despite the UK’s plan to remove equipment made by Chinese tech giant Huawei from the country’s 5G network by 2027, those networks are already up and running.
Despite the hawks’ wishes, China is a reality Britain cannot wish for, as much as some Beijing critics believe Johnson is on their side.
People who worked with Johnson during his tenure as Foreign Secretary say there was no suggestion he was a Sinophile. During two years in office, Johnson visited India, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, but never China. This, according to these familiar and bored Chinese diplomats, eager to point out that China has invested more in the UK than any other European nation.
Chinese Falcons could also be comforted by the recently published review and its commitment to lead a global ocean deployment that will travel to the Indo-Pacific with the United States and other allies – a move that will no doubt anger Beijing, who accused Washington of trying to sow discord in the region.
Meanwhile, Boris’ younger brother Max runs an investment firm specializing in facilitating investments in China and Chinese companies.
Whatever the Prime Minister’s true feelings towards China, the UK is far from having a coherent, long-term strategy for balancing the relationship. Johnson’s recent condemnations might suggest a more hostile tone, but critics note that right now critics are being warned with the need to exchange and cooperate.
“There haven’t been a lot of concrete policies that really have an impact on China,” said Benedict Rogers, Conservative Party activist and Inter-Parliamentary Alliance adviser on China. “The offer of overseas British national passports to Hong Kong citizens and the sanctions against Chinese officials have drawn Beijing’s ire, but China is used to being criticized while continuing as usual . ”
Rogers added that Johnson’s government has a habit of trying to “have its cake and eat it” and thinks that is ultimately its approach to China.
Cake-ism is not necessarily the wrong approach. David Lidington, former de facto deputy prime minister and now president of RUSI, said the only way to really change China’s behavior is to become less dependent on its economic and technological clout.
“Talking about banning individual companies like TikTok or Huawei is a bit of a distraction. The only way to contain China is a unified Western response and to build our own capacities in areas like artificial intelligence and biotechnology,” he said. he declared. “For Britain, this means facilitating conversations between Europe, the United States and other democracies about how we regulate things like data and other new technologies.”
Johnson has long argued that Britain’s post-Brexit prosperity will hinge on trade relations with the rest of the world. In this context, the country cannot ignore China and may soon be forced to stay in a corner.
“It is likely that over the next decade, as China becomes more dominant, a narrative will emerge where countries will be presented with a choice between the US-led West and China. either real or not, it could easily be presented that way, ”Lidington said.
The objective of “strategic autonomy” of the European Union aims precisely to avoid this, by taking a middle path by using the power of its single market and its regulatory powers to remain independent of the two hyperpowers. But having left the bloc, the UK is no longer part of that ecosystem and cannot harness its power.
Acting as a bridge between Europe and America on cooperation in the technological arms race could be a natural role for the UK. Balancing that by leaving the door open for Chinese investment, however, will require not only complicated international diplomacy, but careful management within Johnson’s own Tory party.
“There is a divide within the party. There are those who understand that cutting China completely would be detrimental and those for whom China, after Brexit, is a new and important dimension in determining our place in the world,” said Salma Shah. , former government adviser. “Downing Street needs to seriously think about how it will present even an early strategy in a way that satisfies both sides.”
Johnson has made a career of preventing people from guessing what he really thinks, and the post-Brexit reality presents him with a world of both new opportunities and dangers.
As far as China is concerned, opportunity and danger are rushing towards him faster than he could ever have imagined. If he is to earn the trust of his loyalists at home and allies abroad, he may have to abandon the cake policy that has served him so well before and start putting some solid ideas on the table for tackle China globally. The future of his country could depend on it.