Yellow Dragon Monster: Britain Rejects China’s Embrace

The hope of continuing golden British-China relations was one of the factors in Brexit. The US policy of containment of China has put Britain in a difficult position. British actions against China in line with US policies are damaging Britain's high-level economic ties. What was the British perception of China for post-Brexit relations? How important is Britain's trade and economic relations with China? What effect does the Sino-British-American triangle have on British interests?

The rise of China in the international order was an opportunity for Britain to build new structures on the world stage and in global foreign policy; British politicians expected trade with China to help bridge the gap created by the break from the European Union. Chinese President Xi Jinping travelled to Britain in 2015 and had dinner with the Queen. The Conservative government hailed the event as a sign of a “Golden Age” in Sino-British relations.

Britain’s Perception of the Golden Age of Relations with China

One of the main reasons for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU was, to some extent, the implicit decline of the West and the rise of the East.

Some Brexit activists in Britain have explicitly claimed that leaving the EU is in Britain’s interest, because it will gain complete control over its trade policy. This means that with deeper engagement with the Commonwealth and the rise of China and other emerging powers, lucrative bilateral relations await Britain, which were destroyed in the intensified US-China rivalry.

US Containment Policy Towards China

The challenges of future Sino-British relations remain in place. Just as the British government needs to align with the United States, it also needs to consider relations with China.

As Sino-US rivalry intensified, Sino-British relations changed dramatically since the “Golden Age” four years ago. Britain is now relatively uncomfortable managing economic-trade-technology relations with China.

On the one hand, closer economic ties with the United States in the post-Brexit era are part of Britain’s effort to improve relations with the United States as a main alternative for the EU. On the other hand, Britain must align itself with the United States in a balanced foreign policy against China.

One possible answer to the rise of China, which most realistic theorists in international relations believe in, is to strike a balance with the country. But this is perhaps the hardest such example in practice.

Britain did not seem to seek a balance with China between 2010 and 2016. To the contrary, analysts have pointed at the emergence of a “new special relationship” between the two countries in which Britain, far from a policy of containment, announced its intention to bring China into the club of great powers.

However, there is a consensus in British politics that although they may disagree with China on many issues, Britain needs relations with China to bring real benefits to the British people and economy. This need is accompanied by simultaneous action against China.

British Actions Against China

Under David Cameron, Britain wanted to be China’s “best partner.” But under Boris Johnson, Britain’s position on relations with China became tougher and closer to that of the United States.

The rapid deterioration of relations between Britain and China from Cameron’s time to Johnson’s is truly astonishing. Some actions have played an important part in this process. The government’s trade bill, for instance, allows delegates to further examine the human rights record of Britain’s trading partners.

Last year, Britain issued a ban on the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei. The Chinese Foreign Ministry later noted that Britain’s share of the global market was “relatively small” and that the decision would have little effect on Huawei’s growth.

Britain is increasingly defending the threatened freedoms in Hong Kong. Johnson wrote an article condemning China for new security laws in Hong Kong, a former British colony that has maintained its independence since the transfer of sovereignty back to China in 1997.

The British government also issues visas to people from Hong Kong who want to immigrate for political reasons. The hope is that these immigrants will bring economic growth to British society.

A very provocative move for China in late 2019 was when the new British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth was sent to the Pacific in response to the construction of military installations on the disputed islands in the South China Sea and China’s regular attacks on Taiwan’s air defense zone.

Beijing has strongly warned London against interfering in its “internal affairs”. They are outraged by Boris Johnson’s intervention, claiming it reflects his “colonial” mentality. The Chinese have threatened to “significantly damage” Britain’s economy if it does not stop interfering in China’s internal affairs.

Profitable Economic Relations with China for Britain

China plays a big role in the post-Covid world. Its economy is the second largest in the world and will become the world’s largest economy in the next few years, surpassing that of the United States. It is likely to use its growing material wealth to strengthen its military, diplomatic and political power around the world.

China’s rise seems to signal a series of global shifts that define 21st century geopolitics towards emerging centres of influence. This means a relative roll-back by the United States and Europe and a total separation of powers in the old core of the international system. So British politicians who want to politicise foreign relations with foreign powers are hurting Britain’s national interests.

Over the past century and a half, with the rise of China as a superpower, Britain’s economic and military power has waned. The era when London could impose its will on Beijing is coming to a close. China has become a military power with its large navy and vast missile arsenal. At the same time, China’s was the only major economy that did not shrink during the 2020 pandemic.

In addition, China accounts for about 7% of UK imports and 4% of UK exports. This amount of trade and economic exchange has made the recent decline in Sino-British relations very painful. Britain is now confused about its strategic choice.

Strategic Blockade of British Relations with China

Although Brexit was a purely internal matter for Britain, it ultimately had a zigzag effect on Sino-British relations.

The deterioration of British rule with Brexit led to a lack of coordination and long-term thinking on Chinese issues at the highest level of the British government.

The short-term strategy of many British politicians is to take advantage of China through gunboat diplomacy and contacts with politicians in Hong Kong. In fact, China could be another tool for the immediate political achievements of such British statesmen.

With such dramatic changes in the international order, the reality is that British leaders have no choice but to react passively to the rise of China; on the other hand, China is also an important factor in British policy.

China invested in Britain in the weeks following the EU referendum, from hotels to hostels to football clubs. As China’s wealth, power, and influence continue to grow, this type of investment will serve as a card for Beijing to influence British policy. In addition to the United States and the Persian Gulf, China is a very important overseas market for Britain.

Finally, Britain must prioritise bilateral economic relations with China and refrain from engaging in geopolitical activities which cannot compete with China. At the same time, Britain must align itself in words rather than in practice with the United States. Otherwise, it will lose both its economic gains in relations with China and its ability to finance its activities as a major power, thus loosing both simultaneously.

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