Britain Needs to Maintain Its Pragmatic Approach to China

Engagement with Beijing needs to be clear-eyed and cautious where necessary. But engagement, not revisionism and hostility, should be at the heart of UK policy towards China.

Expert comment Updated 25 August 2021 Published 31 January 2020 2 minute READ

Dr Tim Summers

Former Associate Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme (based in Hong Kong)

Lunar new year celebrations in Trafalgar Square on 26 January. Photo: Getty Images.

Lunar new year celebrations in Trafalgar Square on 26 January. Photo: Getty Images.

In the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, there was much discussion about whether leaving the EU would push the UK towards China as the major source of growth in the global economy and a seemingly promising source of new inward investment.

Now that Brexit day has finally arrived, that question remains on the agenda, but in a somewhat different form. Much has happened to affect the UK’s China policy since June 2016, and – as the Huawei/5G decision shows – it may be factors other than Brexit which do most to shape it over the coming years.

The big development has been the clear emergence since 2017 of US–China strategic rivalry. There may be a temporary lull in the wake of the ‘phase one trade deal’ between Washington and Beijing and the new coronavirus, but the fundamentals still look gloomy. Following the demise of US efforts to engage China, Europeans are going to have to face to up to the fall out of US–China rivalry for some time to come.

As a new report (to which I contributed) shows, the challenges for the UK and others are not just from the US–China dynamics, but from each of the protagonists.

British policy towards the US has become more contested and looks like it could stay that way. The four priorities set out in January by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab – broaden the UK’s horizons and champion free trade, defend the international rule of law, stand up for media freedom and human rights, lead the way in climate change – all clash with the approach of the current US administration.

There is plenty of scope here for friction with China too, especially on media freedom and human rights, though there is broad alignment on climate change, and some interesting space in international law, as recent work at Chatham House shows.

Other new areas of tension with China have emerged since 2016, in particular over developments in Xinjiang. The protests in Hong Kong have very different dynamics, but have also presented a new challenge for British policy in working out how to respond to an increasingly radical movement.

Meanwhile, there has been something of a hawkish drift in China policy across Europe, to which the UK has not been immune. And China has moved up the domestic agenda, creating a more contested politics around London’s China policy.

All of this was on display in the debates about Huawei and 5G over the last year. American public lobbying of the British government has rarely been so intense. But as with the decision to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank back in 2015, London largely resisted Washington’s entreaties. The 28 January decision to allow Huawei a carefully-managed role in the development of 5G in the UK has been presented in pragmatic and technical terms, and the relationship with Washington is strong enough to survive.

There are other areas where the UK continues to differentiate its approach from that of the US. British ministers have referred to the UK as a ‘natural partner’ for China in the Belt and Road Initiative, in contrast to the US’s ‘debt diplomacy’ narrative. Elsewhere, though, the UK has become more aligned with the US, for example over freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

Underlying all this is a difference in strategic instinct towards China, as demonstrated by the government’s response on Huawei and 5G.

For the UK, China is not a military or major security threat or a peer competitor. It is more of a partner – or potential partner – in dealing with global challenges. China offers economic opportunity more than challenge, especially as its economy shifts from low-end manufacturing to one which is more middle class and service oriented.

Much of the policy community in Washington will try to alter this strategic instinct. But London should stay the course. Britain does not have to make a binary choice about which side to be on. A pragmatic approach which deals with the world as it is, takes a realistic view of changes in the distribution of power and focuses on areas where change can be successfully engineered is a good foreign policy instinct.

This should remain the approach with China after Brexit. Engagement needs to be clear-eyed and cautious where necessary, to assess and manage risk in a nuanced way. But engagement, not revisionism and hostility, should be at the heart of policy towards China.