Dr Tim Summers
Senior Consulting Fellow, Asia Programme (based in Hong Kong)
The prime minister just about pulled off the balancing act between trade, culture and geopolitics. But a deeper strategy remains missing.
Theresa May and her husband Philip visit the Yu Yuan Temple Gardens in Shanghai. Photo: Getty Images.Theresa May and her husband Philip visit the Yu Yuan Temple Gardens in Shanghai. Photo: Getty Images.

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s visit to China last week brought to the fore the difficulties of handling relations with China, as she tried to strike a decidedly uneasy balance between trade and investment, culture and education, human rights and geopolitics.

This difficulty was encapsulated in the debate over whether the prime minister would ‘endorse’ Chinese president Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative.

On the face of it, the desire to promote peace and mutual benefit, and the opportunity for enhanced connectivity in trade and culture across Asia, Africa and Europe on this ‘new Silk Road’ is difficult not to endorse. Indeed it echoes the developmental ideologies which the World Bank and others have promoted for decades.

Growing outward investment by Chinese companies, and greater economic and social interactions across this area are arguably some of the major trends of global rebalancing in the first decades of the 21st century. British business has responded enthusiastically, interpreting the initiative in a creative way as a platform for commercial cooperation between the UK and China.

However, the initiative is increasingly seen both inside and outside China as a vehicle for China to reshape globalization and deliver its ‘new type of international relations’ to the wider world. These Chinese initiatives have been treated with suspicion by the US, and with varying degrees of caution by Germany, France and Japan – French President Emmanuel Macron’s comment that the Belt and Road cannot be ‘roads of a new hegemony’ was one of the most quoted remarks of his visit to China, just weeks before that of Theresa May.

Herein lies an important element of the challenge for the UK: how to align itself on China policy vis-à-vis its traditional partners, at a time when dealing with the United States under Trump is proving a political headache in London and relations with other major Western countries are up in the air until the Brexit balls eventually fall into place.

May’s solution for this trip to Beijing was rather reminiscent of her vacillating over Chinese investment in the Hinckley Point C nuclear power station, which she reviewed and then approved shortly after taking over as prime minister in 2016. As then, this time her Chinese counterparts are likely to have been annoyed by London’s briefing against Belt and Road before May left for China, though it may have served its purpose in managing Chinese expectations.

In the end, no memorandum of understanding on the Belt and Road Initiative was signed, even though one would probably have been more symbolic than substantive. Instead, May talked in Beijing on 1 February about ‘intensifying the golden era’ between the two countries, adding that the UK was a ‘natural partner’ for the BRI in an echo of language used by Chancellor Philip Hammond at China’s Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in May 2017, and subsequently echoed by Chinese officials.

This all contributed to a generally positive tone during the visit and dodging questions about whether China is a threat – a key message of Trump’s December National Security Strategy – helped maintain the positive atmospherics. These were boosted by a focus on the importance of further education cooperation during the first day of May’s visit in the massive central Chinese city of Wuhan. Some 155,000 Chinese students currently in the UK contribute an estimated £5 billion annually to the UK economy.

Missing from the public statements during the visit was any reference to human rights, something for which the nationalist-inclined Chinese newspaper Global Times praised the British government. Responding to this, British sources said that issues were raised in private, and on the eve of the visit the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had commented on the disqualification of a pro-self determination activist as a potential candidate in Hong Kong’s forthcoming legislative by-election (something which, incidentally, is only likely to fuel Beijing’s suspicions about British motives in Hong Kong).

The contradictions across multiple areas of China policy will not go away. It will be challenging to balance commercial interests (especially after Brexit), the opportunities and potential political sensitivities of growing Chinese investment in the UK, relations with other allies and Asian economies, and the questions of human rights which consistently attract most parliamentary and media interest. Prime Ministerial visits – infrequent though they are in the case of the UK – help to set the tone and can help bring some clarity on policy priorities. But given the growing influence and scale of China, politically, economically and in people-to-people engagement, more in-depth and considered strategic thinking is needed.

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