Writer: Harvey Dryer

A watershed moment in British foreign relations 

China is the world’s newest superpower. It poses a substantial threat to Western democratic values and challenges the USA politically and economically on the global stage. The emerging competition between the two gargantuan states of international politics has placed the UK in a precarious position. The UK-Sino relationship has, up to a few weeks ago, prospered during a period when America has become ever more protectionist and self-serving. Meanwhile, China has become an important trading partner with the UK. Britain’s ‘special relationship’ with the US hasn’t seemed as beneficial as it once did. Coming into 2020, Britain has been undertaking serious deliberations to determine whether a new ‘special relationship’ is to be formed. 

Many journalists and academics label the ‘golden era’(Ivens, 2020; Ford & Hughes, 2020) of UK-Chinese relations as having run its course, making it a ‘hot topic’ of political discourse. Recent Chinese political actions, such as the passing of the Hong Kong Security Law and the intensified use of ‘education camps’ in Xinjiang, have rung alarm bells for both human rights activists and belligerent national security enthusiasts in the West. As a result, political tensions between the UK and China have reached a boiling point, even though it may have serious implications on the UK’s economic recovery. 

Balancing the Chinese threat by cutting it out of UK affairs may satisfy national security enthusiasts and human rights protesters, but it’s certainly not an economically rational decision. 

Sino-risk 

The current UK Conservative administration regards the Chinese state as a threat to UK cyber security. The u-turn taken by UK government ministers to stop buying new Huawei 5G equipment after 31 December 2020 (as well as the planned removal of all current Huawei equipment from 5G networks by end of 2027) signifies a shift in attitudes towards Chinese state actors: from mitigated scepticism to a desire to counter potential security threats. (Dowden, 2020). Even though the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is not, itself, directly desiring access to UK telecommunications markets, their influence on Huawei is significant and certainly hasn’t been overlooked. Chinese firms are now labeled as ‘high-risk vendors’ in government and parliamentary reports, highlighting the perceived risk of cooperating with Chinese firms. (“Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport,” 2019). 

It must be documented that the decision made by the National Security Council on the 14th of July didn’t fully revolve around cybersecurity concerns. It was also made in response to new US sanctions imposed on Huawei in May. These sanctions meant Huawei could no longer access technology it was relying on to deliver highly effective equipment for UK 5G networks (Sabbath, 2020). Huawei could no longer offer the high standard service it promised. So, the u-turn seems to also be business-related. 

Critics of the u-turn point and cry ‘Sino-phobia’ at the UK government. The government used US actions to mask blatant racism while the threat of Huawei to UK cybersecurity is minimal. Illustrating that the UK’s data policy protections are based on reasonable UK security concerns (not simply knee-jerking Sino-phobia):

1) The CCP sponsors a hacker group called “APT41,” which has targeted organisations in 14 countries over seven years, including; France, India, Italy, Japan, the USA and the UK. The sectors targeted were healthcare, high tech, media, pharmaceuticals, retail, software companies, and perhaps most poignantly, telecoms (Gardner, 2020). The CCP clearly has the capabilities for network espionage. 

2) Every major Chinese enterprise anywhere in the world allegedly has an internal “cell” answerable to the ruling Chinese Communist Party. (Gardner, 2020).

 3) Huawei has a Communist Party Committee operating within its framework (Davies, 2018). Although this is in accordance with Chinese law, it is nonetheless a direct connection between Huawei and the CCP. When answering an online FAQ “Does Huawei have ties to the Communist Party of China (CCP)?” the telecom company’s response contained a mere eighty words outlining their limited involvement with the CCP. However, a much more lengthy response would be required to absolve any allegations over CCP influence (“Huawei FAQs,”2020). 

These facts depict a small piece of a potentially larger picture of intense CCP influence over cyberspace. Their competence in this policy realm provides just reason to have major cybersecurity concerns over Chinese tech companies. The policy to raise cybersecurity standards is not without evidence and rationale. The potential privacy disaster that the Chinese one-party state could enact with data on British citizens would undermine UK democratic freedoms and the British public’s trust in its government and telecoms sector. The sum of these facts total legitimacy for the decision to balance the Chinese global powerhouse; they do not total Sino-phobia. 

“It’s the economy, stupid” 

Balancing the Chinese state over national security concerns shows the dogged character of the British. The UK will not be exploited or taken advantage of by any state, no matter how powerful. Also, the act of balancing mirrors Adam Smith’s analysis that “defence is much more important than opulence (Smith, 1776).” However, the ‘opulence’ that Britain is forgoing could have vital utility in saving the UK economy. Rigorous cybersecurity comes at a cost: a tangible, economic cost that will have ramifications for the UK recovery from the current pandemic and a potential ‘no-deal Brexit.’ Trade with China, since David Cameron fast-tracked the opening up of the UK economy to Chinese investment, has delivered significant gains in trade. In 2019, UK exports of goods and services to China were worth £30.7 billion – a record high. It was also the fourth successive year on year increase in British exports to China. UK imports of goods and services from China in 2019 were £49.0 billion, also a record high (Ward, 2020). Trade with China has delivered greater economic prosperity for the UK. UK-Sino trade relations have been undoubtedly experiencing a ‘golden era.’ So, to sacrifice what is our 6th largest export market and the 4th largest source of imports can only be described as economically irrational, even if it does satisfy the sentiments of an 18th-century philosopher. 

Limiting Chinese access to the UK economy only spells more tragedy for UK economic forecasts. The u-turn over Huawei alone will have negative impacts on the most vulnerable in UK society. The research firm, Assembly, concluded the UK would suffer an economic hit of £6.8bn from not deploying 5G and risk falling behind continental Europe (Ward, 2020). The language used by China’s UK ambassador, Liu Xiaoming, also suggests that there will be further punishing acts that the UK will have to ‘bear the consequence’ for. The ‘golden era’ of trade with China has been stymied. 

The UK has earned geopolitical capital through strong-arming China, especially in the West. This has strengthened our ‘special relationship’ with America, but political kudos isn’t anywhere near as valuable as the economic capital brought through Chinese trade, especially when the world is experiencing a recession of catastrophic magnitude. 

There is a clear trade-off that was and still is, being deliberated in the higher echelons of UK politics. It is between our geopolitical alignment and economic prosperity. The public adoption of a similar foreign policy to the US regarding China will only feed Chinese paranoia, even if it does appease President Trump and bolster the UK security agenda. The potential of the UK having to face up to the Chinese’s fierce, unapologetic ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy is growing. ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy, named after a set of highly nationlistic Chinese films, has been designed to push back against political actors that have deemed to insult China (Westcott, 2020). This style of diplomacy has already been felt by nations such as India and Australia, who have threatened Chinese territory and the Chinese image respectively. The UK is presumably the next target of this nationalist and aggressive force. 

Nowadays though, Britain’s ‘special relationship’ with the US won’t be of much use when faced with Chinese economic punishing acts, such as sanctions and tariffs. One notable factor that impacts the relative propensity to bandwagon is an inability to fall back on stronger allies (Walt, 2009). The US’ protectionist agenda is fundamentally ‘Americanist.’ The absence of American leadership and foreign trade on the world stage has created a power vacuum that has encouraged Western states to align themselves with the Chinese. The intensifying friendships between China and Italy, and China and Greece, demonstrate the significance that the international power vacuum has had on Western states bandwagoning China (Syrrakos, 2019). 

Making and keeping America great contrasts the selfish economic agenda currently required by the UK, which, in light of Brexit and the pandemic, is to accelerate growth. The ‘special relationship’ has more historical importance than economic importance. Security is a top priority for all nation-states, but most security concerns are held by government officials and politicians: economic concerns are held by all citizens. It is a time of economic crisis, so arguably it is time to put the security agenda on the back burner. The economic well-being of British citizens should come first. The choice, however, has already been made by Boris Johnson: America first. 

The frontiers of culture 

International relations are shaped by the environment they exist within. The international environment, without any supranational global authority, is anarchic. No international agency has the authority to dictate relations, and so relations are formed at the discretion of individual nation-states. 

International political relations are usually determined by the compatibility of aims and interests. The most significant determinant in whether a state will form close relations is the compatibility of culture. Culture is the key to understanding why Britain and China do not, and will not share the same close relationship that Britain has with the USA. Analysing culture differentials will help understand why Britain has now, through targeted hostile measures, balanced the Chinese superpower in light of the economic arguments that favour Chinese friendship. 

Culture determines a politician’s worldview. Entrenched in Chinese politics and history is Chinese tradition. Under President Xi Jinping, traditionalism is gaining strong momentum (Yan, 2018). A driving force of Chinese traditionalism is Confucian philosophy, which places emphasis on political leadership, as well as the role of strategic credibility, to constitute a durable leadership. Only then can harmony be achieved. Any semblance of a threat to state authority is not tolerated. Thus, the Chinese political worldview revolves around strict state authority. The new, and widely criticised, Hong Kong National Security Law usurped any autonomy possessed by Hong Kong, exemplifying the harsh nature of the Chinese state (Ford & Hughes, 2020). The new Security Law renders secessionist activities illegal and thus makes being anti-China state, illegal. 

Even the western skeptic would have to admit that such draconian measures would be as likely to occur in the public eye in the West as Donald Trump winning a third term as President of the United States. The reason why these policies wouldn’t exist in many Western states is the widely accepted culture of liberal democracy. Arguably, liberal democracy is an ideology, but its endurance throughout history has developed it into a culture of sorts. One can change political affiliations easily, making the switch between ideologies. One does not retire a culture so smoothly. Liberal democratic values simply do not underpin people’s political beliefs; they encapsulate a way of living. They underpin a sense of being. Liberal democracy cannot be ontologically reduced to a set of political beliefs. 

Within liberal democratic thought, a state’s strength is not determined by its ability to crush all opponents. Instead, it comes through being held accountable. They want their critics to be heard, not silenced. The criticisms may point out weaknesses and flaws but the state becomes all the stronger for it because it has welcomed the right to be challenged, to be held accountable. This may form obstacles for the state but even then it full-proofs the legitimacy of the rule of law. Freedom of speech is much more valuable to the West than having a strong state. The primacy the state has over civil liberties in Chinese politics provides a seemingly uncompromisable conflict between the UK and China. 

Liberal democracy, as well as abiding by ‘majority rule,’ exacts ‘minority rights.’ The protection of all groups through non-discriminatory law and policy is a fundamental prerequisite for a tolerant society. Only in a tolerant society can the dignity of all humans be ensured. Unfortunately, such tolerance is not practised by the Chinese nation-state. Currently, there are several operational camps in the Xinjiang region that punish, imprison, and indoctrinate groups including Uyghurs, Kazakhs and more. Chinese authorities purport that the camps provide voluntary education and training. However, a leaked memo sent by Zhu Hailun, an ex deputy-secretary of Xinjiang’s Communist Party, suggests otherwise. The leaked document included terms regarding camp members such as, “never allow escapes,” “increase discipline and punishment of behavioural violations” and “encourage students to truly transform”(Allen-Ebrahimiam, 2019). Those being held against their will, for the most part, haven’t acted unjustly. They are imprisoned not for what they have done, but for who they are. The dignity of human beings in those camps is clearly not being respected. The very existence of these camps contradicts the core liberal democratic values of tolerance and freedom. 

Even though the UK would economically benefit from trade with China, to bandwagon would entail accepting their intolerant actions or turning a blind eye to them. Chinese political culture is too far removed from that of the UK. The conflicting values make diplomatic compromise difficult. Shared economic aims are the only means allowing China to form strong bonds with Western countries. With America providing a roadblock to maintaining the ‘golden era’ relationship, strong UK-Sino economic bonds are out of sight for the near future. Balancing Chinese values and political culture is the only path for Britain. 

Summary 

Britain and China are unlikely to experience economic and diplomatic prosperity for the foreseeable future. The conditions for balancing with the US against China are not optimal. However, they outweigh the relative propensity to bandwagon a state so culturally dissimilar. Decisions on Huawei reinforces the ‘mobilisation of shame’ aimed at China, as well as the collective security system Britain shares with the US. 

Although Britain’s economic recovery welcomes Chinese trade, the hearts and minds of the British state and citizens would not welcome a close association with China at this point in time. Until China acts responsibly, the ‘golden era’ remains in limbo. The ball is in China’s court now and it is likely that Britain will balance the Chinese at least until there is a change in mindset amongst high ranking Chinese state officials towards the civil rights and liberties of their citizens. 

However, unlike many journalists have purported, the ‘golden era’ relationship is not over. International relations rest on so many variables, making them malleable. Balancing the threat posed by China is today’s headline. For the past five years, the UK has been one of the most open western economies to Chinese investment. In the near future, the UK may be greeting Chinese diplomats and CCP officials with open arms, and, in so doing, bandwagoning the Chinese administration. Those that call it an end to ‘golden era’ relations overlook this key adage that underwrites a significant portion of international political relations: “today’s enemy is tomorrow’s friend.” 

References: 

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