Britain's awkward China U-turn in foreign policy

Tom Fowdy
Although the world has changed, there is now more space to return to normality and stability with China and even the White House is resigned to that.
Tom Fowdy

On Monday, former British Prime Minister David Cameron was appointed as foreign secretary in a Cabinet reshuffle which had amounted from the controversial sacking of Suella Braverman.

Cameron, who is no longer a sitting MP, was hastily appointed into the House of Lords as a peer. The move raised eyebrows because Cameron's foreign policy legacy, on one of the biggest issues of this day, ushered in a "golden era" of relations between the UK and China. Cameron was enthusiastic about ties with Beijing, and even represented a Belt and Road investment fund in Sri Lanka after leaving front-line politics.

Cameron of course enters office in a very different strategic environment, and he will not have complete control over the policy line he has to advocate. However, the political symbolism of the move is an unmistakable gesture to Beijing which signals an alleviation in ties and a sidelining of the hawks in the Conservative Party.

It is after all significant to note that little over a year ago, Liz Truss held the same office before becoming prime minister, and she sought to use that as much as possible to advocate a hostile stance toward Beijing, and short of her immediate downfall as leader, was going to designate the country as a threat.

Yet now, one year on, the UK appears to be relenting in hostility toward China and the appointment of Cameron is the affirmative packaging of that. Alongside this, the UK has also made a number of quiet moves to also tone down hostility. This messaging started to emerge in the past few months whereby Foreign Secretary James Cleverly made a call to engage with China again and visited Beijing.

Conservative hawks responded to this by publicly releasing the "spy story" in order to ferment mass hysteria and undermine engagement with Beijing. However, it failed because the suspect was never charged in the end and the attempt to frame him was pure political opportunism.

In following that, the UK then made a number of reconciliatory moves. They avoided imposing a ban on Chinese-supplied Hikvision cameras, narrowed the legal threshold of investment restrictions on the premise of national security, and turned away from Rishi Sunak's first pledge to ban Confucius Institutes.

Despite facing overwhelming pressure from the US on its foreign policy sovereignty, the UK having an increasingly ideological character since Brexit, and also right wing rebels, Britain is slowly drifting back to its business-friendly posture regarding Beijing.

First of all, China remains an integral economic partner of Britain and it was ludicrously unreasonable that the UK should shun this purely on the premise of ideology, it was always the intention of leaders to eye China as a critical "post-Brexit" partner and only the US got in the way.

Second of all, the British economy is performing poorly and in a state of stagnation, meaning it has little political will or scope to pick a fight with China that can pose economic consequences, or to scare investment away.

Thirdly, the most fantasized and dreamed-after "trade deal" with the US previous governments prioritized has never materialized. The United States is not interested in a bilateral deal with Britain save that they made overwhelming one-sided capitulations.

Fourth, while Sunak opportunistically latches on to right wing populist overtones to gain support, he is by nature of his background a more liberal Conservative who favors business and it has become increasingly apparent that what he says, and what he does, are often two very different things.

In doing so he has made aggressive rhetoric about China previously including calling it the biggest threat to the UK's "economic security" and pledging to "ban Confucius Institutes" amongst other things, but he has never truly followed up on any of it. A lot of this is because he has sought to limit the political space of disruptive hawks in his party who use the China issue to ignite rebellions, the most notable person doing this being Iain Duncan Smith.

Yet now, Sunak suddenly feels confident to tilt slightly toward Beijing. This of course does not mean this pressure, or US pressure will go away, nor will there be the glorification of the "golden age," yet for all intents and purposes it seems the UK has found its sanity when it comes to China and does not want to rock the boat any further. I mean why of all people, do you recruit a former prime minister to be your foreign secretary, who is not even in the House of Commons? It is a powerful gesture.

We should of course not expect a return to the past, and there will be more rocking of the boat here and there, but it seems the controversies of the last few years, which the US ignited to attack China, including Hong Kong, Xinjiang, as well as the weaponization of the COVID-19 pandemic, are over, and although the world has changed, there is now more space to return to normality and stability with China and even the White House is resigned to that.

(The author, a postgraduate student of Chinese studies at Oxford University, is an English analyst on international relations. The views are his own.)

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