The UK’s national interest is best served by talking to China and avoiding a new Cold War, James Cleverly has said, and he was right to do so.
He made explicit the careful balancing act of recent British policy as reflected in the recent updated Integrated Review – wanting trade ties and recognizing China’s growing power but retaining room to reprimand it for breaches of human rights. But his position is also clearer because balance has been reached after years of swinging from one pole to another.
George Osborne, then the UK chancellor, hailed a ‘golden era’ of relations with China in a 2015 speech marked by £30 billion of agreed trade deals and a UK state visit by President Xi Jinping. Then followed the exclusion of China telecoms firm Huawei from the UK’s 5G network and the UK protest against the crackdown on civil liberties in Hong Kong. And the UK parliament has banned Chinese-owned TikTok from all parliamentary devices on security grounds.
China is needed for global solutions
So it was not easy for Cleverly to craft his middle way. He argues national interests would not be served by isolating China in a new Cold War, saying no significant global problem from climate change to pandemic prevention, from economic stability to nuclear proliferation ‘can be solved without China’.
But he also warns China against the consequences of ‘the biggest military build-up in peacetime history’, calling for more transparency – albeit not spelling out what that requires – to avoid ‘tragic miscalculation’. He also draws attention to the Chinese government’s repression of its people and to the oppression of the Uyghurs, as the UK government has long done and continues to do.
Cleverly’s remarks, made to an audience of ambassadors and high commissioners, extend the careful path the UK prime minister Rishi Sunak laid out in the recent update to the government’s Integrated Review, when he called China an ‘epoch-defining challenge to the type of international order we want to see’.
This line is not as tough as some Conservative backbenchers want and Liz Truss, briefly UK prime minister in 2022, speaks for a small but vocal group in calling China an outright threat. To that extent, it shows the confidence Sunak – and Cleverly – have about their control of the party.
But it is also much less tough than the line the Biden administration takes in the US where sometimes almost the only point of agreement between Democrats and Republicans is their shared vehemence about the threat posed by China.
That could prove awkward as the UK continues to angle for a trade deal with Washington – even though that still seems far off – as well as other cooperation priorities. And the China rhetoric will likely heat up as the 2024 US presidential campaign gets underway.
Striking a balance carries risk
The other main concern about such careful ambivalence is that it could annoy China and therefore fail to reap the commercial deals in the UK’s national interest that Cleverly also clearly wants. Trying to have it both ways can fail.