Home WOLRD Foreign Policy The Observer view on post-Brexit UK-China relations

The Observer view on post-Brexit UK-China relations

Anger and alarm about China is mounting rapidly in government circles and especially among Tory rightwingers, anxious about national security, unfair trade practices and Hong Kong. It’s certainly true that the increasingly aggressive behaviour of President Xi Jinping’s authoritarian regime is deeply worrying. It’s a pity that the Tory grandees who are making the most noise now did not raise their concerns much earlier, before Britain became dependent on Beijing’s favours to escape its Brexit mess.

As pressure grows on Boris Johnson to exclude the telecoms company Huawei from the UK’s 5G rollout and to review Chinese investment in nuclear, transport and other security-related projects, Iain Duncan Smith and former ministers David Davis, Liam Fox and Owen Paterson are backing an interparliamentary alliance to scrutinise China’s activities. Separately, Tories in the new China Research Group, modelled on Westminster’s pro-Brexit European Research Group, are boldly promising greater vigilance.

Of immediate concern is China’s draconian national security law in Hong Kong. Beijing’s curt dismissal of British protests was followed by threats of unspecified “consequences” should the UK open its borders to millions of British overseas passport holders in the former colony. This in turn has focused Tory attention on wider problems, including China’s escalating intimidation of Taiwan and its punitive measures against Australia following Canberra’s call for an independent inquiry into the pandemic.

In an interview with the Hudson Institute last week, Duncan Smith was rich in hindsight. In a race for trade and investment over the past decade, he said, “the free world has marched somewhat blindly into the embrace of [the] Chinese Communist party”. Unfortunately, it was now clear that China was intent on “complete dominance” globally. Speaking to the BBC last month, he went so far as to suggest that revolution was afoot: “While China is a great nation, it’s posing a threat to the natural order.”

Leaving aside what Duncan Smith meant by the “natural order”, all this Tory angst comes a bit late, and sounds a tad hypocritical. Why on earth, if the threat is so great, did these people not speak out when David Cameron and the then chancellor, George Osborne, launched their bogus “golden era” in UK-China relations, promising ever closer ties? Where were they in 2015 when Dave took Xi down the pub for a pint? Providing the crisps, perhaps.

Even if they had not yet heard of the brutal treatment of Xinjiang’s Uighurs, were they truly unaware of China’s long record of oppression and social engineering in Tibet? Were they themselves among those blind “free world” decision-makers who wilfully disregarded the anti-democratic nature of Communist rule, China’s predatory trade and debt practices, its industrial espionage, intellectual property theft and systematic persecution of dissidents, writers, academics, Christians and journalists?

It’s hard to imagine that such eminent parliamentarians were oblivious. So why did they not object earlier? One possible explanation is that Duncan Smith, Davis, Fox, Paterson and other new-minted human rights defenders were ardent Brexiters, before and after the 2016 referendum. Their overriding priority was pushing Brexit through – and for this the appearance of a friendly relationship with economically powerful China was crucial.

A key argument – perhaps the key argument – of Brexit ministers and their supporters was that Britain, freed from the EU’s shackles, would forge independent, mutually beneficial and respectful trade, business and investment relationships with the world’s leading powers, principally the US and China. Predictions that leaving the EU would, on the contrary, weaken Britain’s sovereign control and freedom of action were rejected out of hand.

Yet now, six months after Britain formally left the EU and only a few short months away from a calamitous no-deal crash, what is Britain’s position? It is some way off even a basic trade pact with the EU. Desperate to cut a deal with Washington, its ability to resist unpalatable US demands declines by the day. Donald Trump is even pushing Britain to sign a “loyalty oath”, giving preference to the US over China. He wants UK backing for his dangerous “new cold war” narrative. Therein lies another huge trap.

In China itself, meanwhile, Britain faces a vastly more powerful, scornful opponent that lacks respect for its values, believes (with some justice) that it can exploit British economic, financial and political neediness to get its own way, and which does as it likes in Hong Kong – as evidenced by last week’s withering tirade from its London ambassador, Liu Xiaoming.

How to understand the contradiction between the hard Tory Brexiters’ previous positive take on China as a partner for “global Britain” and their open hostility now? It’s not difficult. As international trade secretary, for example, Fox boasted in 2018 of cutting lucrative deals during successive visits to Beijing. This, they said, was the future. In their blind fervour for Brexit at any cost, they did not think things through.

Britain requires balanced, boundaried relationships. Yet thanks to these short sighted Tories, the UK is more limply beholden than ever to not one but two overbearing foreign powers with hegemonistic tendencies and nasty tempers. Too late they realise their mistake.


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