Where is the Sino-British relationship headed?

Britain’s relationship with China continues to cool over Hong Kong, huawei‘s 5G construction and a ban on Xinjiang labor camp products. The British Parliament, for its part, intends to introduce a bill this week on the Chinese Communist Party‘s genocide of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. With Britain now playing a leading role in Europe against China, is the Johnson government not afraid to offend Beijing? Where will Sino-British relations go from here?

Prime Minister Johnson told British MPs last week that Britain needs to be vigilant about the security of its national infrastructure, but that it should not be “China-phobic. Johnson said that dialogue with China and calls for a focus on human rights “should not prevent Britain from developing a productive relationship with China.”

How should Johnson’s comments be interpreted at this moment? Charles Parton, a former British diplomat and senior associate fellow at the Royal United Studies Institute (RUSI), told VOA that Johnson was trying to convey that he agreed with British Foreign Secretary Raab’s announcement of a ban on Xinjiang labor camp products, but that Britain could not ignore China either. Like many other countries, he said, Britain is reassessing its relationship with China, “We want to have good relations with China, but we can’t support behavior that is unacceptable to China.”

From Hong Kong, Huawei and Xinjiang to sending aircraft carriers on cruises in the South China Sea, unlike the European Union, the British Johnson administration has taken clear steps to counterbalance China. After the UK took the lead in Europe in restricting Huawei’s 5G construction, China’s ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, warned that “whoever treats China as an enemy cannot have a golden age.” Paton, who has 27 years of experience in China affairs, told Voice of America that the Chinese Communist Party’s instinct is to bully and that “the Sino-British golden age is long over, or, that was the era of Sino-British misunderstanding that needs to be rebalanced.”

Patton said, “China’s foreign policy over the last few years, you can call it assertive or bullying, but in any case, what China wants to do is take a tough stance.” So, has China succeeded? Paton said it appears from the Australian example that Beijing has missed the mark, “and I can’t see the UK making concessions to China. I think the British government is in the groping stage of developing a new policy on China, and the recent spate of developments is part of that process.”

The UK has made major policy reversals in response to China having officially opened entry to the UK visa applications for 3 million Hong Kong citizens holding British National Overseas passports (BNO) and having plans to exclude Huawei from future UK outline construction. If this week’s parliamentary motion on the Chinese Communist Party’s genocide in Xinjiang is passed, hawkish British lawmakers on China will demand that the British government restrict trade relations with China, and bilateral trade negotiations between China and Britain will be affected. Why is Britain willing to take the risk in the face of China, one of the world’s fastest growing economies, with an uncertain post-Brexit future and the pressure of a new epidemic?

Peter Mandelson, former UK trade minister and head of the Great Britain-China Center, questioned whether the UK is jumping on the “anti-China bandwagon”: “This is not student union politics, thinking we can somehow deal with countries we don’t like through resolutions. We have to ask ourselves, how exactly is Britain going to engage with China?”

For its part, the Conservative Parliamentary China Study Group, which was just formed in April 2020, advocates a stricter stance on China. Tugenhardt, the group’s chair, said, “While foreign interference is nothing new, it’s unacceptable that the world’s second largest economy is changing our academic freedom, innovation and research, and even the nature of our democracy.”

In response, Paton told Voice of America that Britain wants to protect its national security and interests as much as China does, and that there are many in Britain who have been alerted to China’s behavior, “and while we are currently under Brexit and viral pressure, I don’t think betting it all on China is the necessary long-term answer.”

Paton argues that the potential trade and investment penalties and costs of offending China have been overstated, and that British exports to China have grown despite China’s diplomatic coolness in retaliation for the British prime minister’s meeting with the exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, back in 2012.

Paton noted that the Xinjiang issue is now more widely known; the Hong Kong issue is not yet over, and there is too much room for China to exacerbate the situation with more clampdowns in Hong Kong. He predicted that “Sino-British relations will become more tense.

While the British side expects the relationship to develop in a less negative way, and there are many reasons why the two sides must work together not only on trade but also on environmental protection and global health, one slap on the wrist is not enough, and I would not be overly optimistic about a Xi Jinping-led Chinese Communist regime,” Paton said.

The U.S. factor cannot be ruled out when looking at Sino-British relations. With Biden in the White House, Patton believes that Washington’s attitude toward China may change, but the content of the policy will not change. Patton told the Voice of America, “The U.K. and the U.S. have been allied for more than a century, and Britain is not willing to choose between China and the U.S. If we have to choose, we have to be clear about which direction to go.”