The intricacies of the old world hegemon’s intention to return to the Indo-Pacific

The conflict between Britain and the Chinese Communist Party has recently come back into the international spotlight. On the surface, the Hong Kong issue is a major trigger for the further deterioration of bilateral relations, but in the eyes of observers, the intensification of the conflict between the two sides has a deeper historical and international context. They believe that as China’s power grows, the Communist Party is trying to extend its influence globally, while Britain, once the “Empire of the Sun”, is not content to remain isolated in the face of the world’s great changes and is beginning to reorient its policies toward the Indo-Pacific region, which is becoming the center of global development.

British Foreign Secretary George Raab made a rare serious statement last week about the Communist Party’s decision to introduce changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system, saying China is now in a state of “persistent non-compliance” with the Sino-British Joint Declaration. According to Raab, Beijing‘s decision to “impose radical changes to limit participation in Hong Kong’s electoral system” is a clear “further breach” of the treaty.

Many international media analysts say Raab’s statement indicates a further escalation of tensions between Britain and China, and that the British side may be about to launch new measures to sanction the Chinese Communist Party.

Relations between the UK and the Chinese Communist Party have been on an escalating track since the massive protests in Hong Kong in 2019, and in June 2020, the Communist Party launched a siege on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp by forcing the implementation of Hong Kong’s national security law. At the recently concluded session of the National People’s Congress, the Communist Party also enacted changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system to ensure the principle of “patriots ruling Hong Kong” and to completely exclude the opposition from Hong Kong’s political decision-making process.

All this is a total betrayal of the principles of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration in the eyes of the British, who have run Hong Kong for 99 years. In this statement, the Chinese Communist Party made a historic commitment to a “50-year unchanged system, a high degree of autonomy and Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong”.

The deterioration of Sino-British relations goes far beyond Hong Kong. Before that, Britain joined the US and other Western countries in attacking and containing China on a range of issues, including the persecution of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, the refusal of Chinese tech giant huawei to participate in 5G network projects in Western countries, the ban on forced labor, and the guarantee of free navigation in the South China Sea. To add to Beijing’s anger, Britain has said it will send the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth to cruise the Indo-Pacific waters, including the South China Sea, to ensure freedom of navigation.

The golden age is a sad thing of the past

The current state of relations between Britain and China seems to many familiar with the years of Hong Kong’s handover and the great development of economic and trade relations between the two countries to have been a double whammy.

In an interview with the Voice of America, Ma Zhengang, who has been China’s ambassador to Britain since the return of Hong Kong in 1997, lamented the change. He said, “One of the things that is reflected is mutual respect. The British government at the Time did not attack and vilify China. When Blair was prime minister, he was still friendly to China. There was a relatively obvious development in economic and trade cooperation between the two sides. Later when Cameron became prime minister, the two sides still cooperated well, especially in the financial sector has a new development, I can not say which prime minister is the best, but where there is mutual respect with China, equal and mutually beneficial development, the development of relations between China and the United Kingdom will be better.”

In 2015, Communist Party President Xi Jinping‘s visit to the UK marked a high point in the development of relations between the two countries. There was a new high point of Chinese investment in the UK. Chinese companies invested heavily in many British industries, such as steel, automobiles, airports, drinking water, fuel production, gas pipelines, and even the construction of nuclear power plants. The UK also joined the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) that year.

George Osborne, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, said of that period that it was a “golden age” for Sino-British relations.

That was the year when Sino-British relations entered a new era, said Cheng Yu-suk, a retired political science professor at City University of Hong Kong, speaking to the Voice of America.

The leaders of China and Britain said publicly that this was a golden age,” Cheng said. They were expected to do so at that time. The British government at that time was hoping to develop the Chinese market, and also hoped that the Chinese government would come to invest more, and everyone had a certain vision. In the past, compared to France and Germany, the UK paid less attention to the Asia Pacific region, and did not pay as much attention to the position of China. At that time everyone was indeed hoping to open up this situation.”

Observers said one of the reasons why Britain was active with China was that it was widely believed in British political circles at the time that although China was a one-party dictatorship of the Communist Party, such concerns should not affect the economic and trade development between the two countries.

China puts the blame on Britain for interfering in China’s internal affairs

The Chinese side likes to blame Britain’s interference in China’s internal affairs for the deterioration of British-Chinese relations. Speaking to Voice of America, Ma Zhengang said, “Over the past two decades or so, there has been constant British involvement, or interference in certain areas, in the Hong Kong issue, only to varying degrees, sometimes more moderate, sometimes more egregious, like in recent years.”

The UK introduced the decision to admit Hong Kong residents to immigrate to the UK after the implementation of Hong Kong’s national security laws the government decided to let have a BNO, or British National (Overseas) passport. Hong Kong residents holding such passports can apply for visas of up to five years and apply for naturalization after six years of residence.

Cheng Yu-suk, a retired political science professor at City University of Hong Kong, said, “A significant portion of British political leaders and public opinion feel that Britain has a certain responsibility to Hong Kong and should provide help to Hong Kong, which means that using the BNO British National (Overseas) Passport they can settle in Britain for five years and then apply for permanent residence.”

Cheng described the UK as one of the very few countries that can actually help Hong Kong and provide it with significant support. Conservative estimates suggest that hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong people are eligible to apply for BNO visas, but the UK has clearly touched Beijing’s red line with this approach.

In Beijing’s eyes this is a challenge to China and an intervention in China’s internal affairs,” said Zheng Yusuo. The UK is doing this as a reflection on China’s very unfriendly policy towards Hong Kong, to take punitive measures against the UK.”

Both Beijing and the Hong Kong government have announced that they do not recognize BNO passports as valid travel documents.

Beijing stressed that the Sino-British Joint Declaration does not contain any provisions that give the UK any responsibility towards the people of Hong Kong. The Chinese and Hong Kong governments also announced that they would not recognize the BNO passport as a valid travel document in response to the British measures.

Is the War Wolf diplomacy also culpable?

Professor Emeritus Ding Shu Fan of Taiwan‘s National Chengchi University believes that the overall tension between Britain and China may also be related to the Chinese side’s war-wolf diplomacy. He believes that the freezing of Sino-British relations is not a coincidence, and can even be traced back to the financial turmoil more than a decade ago.

In the past few years, China has faced serious conflicts in its diplomacy with many Western countries,” Ding told the Voice of America. China’s relations with European countries have become very bad. Britain is just one of them. Is there something wrong with China’s diplomacy?”

Ding Shufan believes that the global financial turmoil that occurred in 2008 to 2009 was a key point. China avoided that crisis, which made the Chinese more confident and also caused some miscalculations in China, one of which was war-wolf diplomacy. Xi Jinping’s recent statement that China can look at the world and not at the world, means that the Communist Party can respond to foreign countries that “interfere in China’s internal affairs” without having to hide behind a bullhorn.

Alexander Downer, who served as Australia’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, agrees that China’s diplomatic posture is becoming more assertive. He noted that a real problem in the South China Sea is that China is trying to seize sovereignty there in a more aggressive way, against international law.

The Guardian quoted him as saying, “Britain needs to resist. Maybe there will be fewer British sales of Bentleys in Shanghai, but that’s a small thing compared to this. This is a big matter of war and peace.”

London report: Britain should also return to Asia-Pacific

The British government presented a major report on Tuesday (March 16) on the direction of Britain’s foreign and defense policy after its withdrawal from the European Union. The report suggests that it is time for Britain to return to world affairs and expand its influence in the Indo-Pacific region, the heartland of future world development.

The document is considered the most comprehensive review of British foreign and defense policy since the end of the Cold War in 1990. The document sets out Prime Minister Johnson’s vision of a Britain that wants to be at the forefront of reinvigorating a rules-based international order based on cooperation and free trade, and wants Britain to play a key role in the building of a new international order.

The report says Britain should expand, not shrink, its own nuclear arsenal. Sending the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth to cruise the Indo-Pacific waters, particularly the South China Sea, would be part of a reorientation of British global policy.

The report says China poses a threat to Britain’s economic security. Although the UK is only the world’s sixth largest economy, the UK is convinced that it can convince China to abide by the rules of the international system through soft power and strategic alliances.

However, the idea of confrontation with China, the world’s second largest economy, is currently difficult for the more conservative-minded British to accept. The reality of the new poll is that more than 50 percent of Britons oppose foreign policy adjustments that would expand Britain’s involvement in international affairs.

But the trend toward the growing importance of the Indo-Pacific region to the future development of the world is making it impossible for British policymakers to sit back and watch the rapid growth of Chinese influence in the region. Admiral Tony Radakin told the Atlantic Council last month that Britain will once again become a carrier strike force. If people see Britain’s departure from the EU as a step toward its integration into the world, he said, then it is only natural that we seek growth in trade and prosperity.”

Radaghin stressed, “Where our navy goes, trade follows. Everywhere trade goes, the navy is not absent.”