Britain and China: Being Friendly

Posted: November 29, 2010 in World Today
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A new piece for Chatham House’s magazine The World Today, drawing on a topic that has come up repeatedly during interviews with academics in China. The fact that they love British foreign policy so much. It is sometimes hard to tell whether they are simply flattering me with these sorts of statements, but I feel like there is something more to it. The UK’s approach does seem to hit a lot of buttons which, at least in my mind, make sense to the Chinese. More on this topic as my work on EU-China progresses. As usual, thoughts, comments, etc, welcome. The l

Britain and China: Being Friendly

Raffaelo Pantucci, December 2010

The World Today, Volume 66, Number 12

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Amongst the strangest sights of the recent Shanghai Expo was the British seed cathedral pavilion. Brilliantly simple in design, it stood out for touching on environmentalism whilst hovering architecturally like a real-life optical illusion. It was also one of the most popular pavilions, with long queues reflecting curiosity about the space, but also the positive light in which China sees Britain.

As with any bilateral relationship, the Sino-British one has gone through its awkward phases. Some in China still blame the troublesome Tibet question on Britain. And it was former Energy Minister, and now Labour leader, Ed Miliband, who was amongst the most vociferous in casting the blame on China for the inconclusive result of last year’s Copenhagen climate conference. But at the same time, this has not hurt the overall thrust of the bilateral partnership which has largely remained positive. So much so that a frequent question from Chinese academics is whether there is some way the overall European Union-China relationship can be remolded to look more like the British approach?

What China appears to like about the British way of doing things can broadly be captured around three main poles: consistency; focus on what matters: trade; and a willingness to do the diplomatic dance around face – or mutual selfrespect – to which the Chinese attach so much importance. From Beijing’s perspective, the point is a bilateral relationship founded on stability with an underlying focus on economic pragmatism.

Britain has recognized the importance of this approach to China – one of its Beijing diplomats described the principle underlying strategy as ‘no big surprises.’ And this was laid out clearly in September last year in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office strategy paper: ‘The UK and China: a framework for engagement.’ The new government shows no evidence of shifting from this. Prime Minister David Cameron was quite categorical when he said in Beijing, ‘on this vital point [the relationship with China] there is absolute continuity between my government and the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.’

Mission To Trade

Enmeshed with this consistency is the message that trade is the key element in the British-China bilateral relationship. The strategy paper is quite clear in ‘getting the best for the UK from China’s growth’ and persuading China ‘to see the UK as a global hub…boosting our business, educational, scientific and cultural gains from the bilateral relationship.’

In his preface, then-Foreign Secretary David Miliband quite baldly states: ‘there are, of course, major economic benefits from our relationship.’ On his most recent trip to China, Cameron brought with him 43 leaders of industry, four cabinet colleagues and announced before he left that ‘this is a vitally important trade mission.’

This economic focus is not something which is restricted to Britain’s approach to China, with the new administration in London giving its ambassadors ‘greater responsibilities for promoting UK business abroad’ and elevating the role of the Department for Trade and Industry in foreign posts. Something that is easily comprehensible to the gross domestic product (GDP) growth-obsessed Chinese. For them, economic growth is key to ensuring their nation’s tidy emergence on the world stage and the party’s ongoing ability to govern. It is therefore understandable and reassuring that London prioritises this equally.

Chancellor George Osbourne was the first member of the new British cabinet to visit China, declaring ‘if you’re looking to answer the big question for Britain, which is where the growth is going to come from in the next few years, I think export – and exports to an economy the size of China – is one place we should be looking.’ On the eve of Cameron’s arrival, the Chinese press was full of headlines that ‘Business draws Cameron to Beijing.’

The British press on the other hand largely focused on whether Cameron was going to raise the question of human rights and the imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, highlighting the problem with the trade approach. Much to the dismay of activists, Britain has repeatedly shown itself willing to do the diplomatic dance required to pander to the Chinese diplomatic obsession with face.

This expresses itself in a number of ways. For example, while in 2008 the world watched as rioters in Lhasa were aggressively put down and protestors took to the streets around the world, then Prime Minister Gordon Brown, like most European leaders,met the Dalai Lama. However, unlike President Nicolas Sarkozy of France or German Chancellor Angela Merkel who saw him in their offices, Brown talked to the exiled Tibetan leader at Lambeth Palace, home of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The point was to recognise his religious status rather than a political one.

Similarly, towards the end of the year, the British government clarified that it, ‘like every other EU member state, and the United States…regard[s] Tibet as part of the People’s Republic of China.’ The statement went on to highlight that this was not a shift, but instead a clarification as previous official language which was based on ‘the outdated concept of suzerainty.’

Apparently unprompted, the clarification was very well received in China at the end of a year in which the country had faced a lot of criticism of its Tibet policies. In both cases, the British government felt some level of domestic criticism. The public perception was that the government had capitulated on the sensitive Tibet issue to curry favour with Beijing.

Kernel of Concern

Problematically, after all these careful approaches, late last year China executed British citizen Akmal Shaikh on drugs charges following repeated official and non-official pleas to have his mental health examined more closely. Everyone up to the Prime Minister reached out to Beijing in the case and was rebuffed; something which would seem to belie any preferential relationship.

In such actions lie the kernels of concern that underlie British public wariness towards China. A recent German Marshall Fund Transatlantic Trends poll showed how Britons are amongst those with the most positive attitudes towards China in Europe, but at the same time, a poll by ICM highlighted that three quarters believed that protecting human rights in Tibet was as important as maintaining trade links.

While China might appreciate the fact that the Shaikh case did not seriously damage Sino-British relations, within the issue lie the seeds that might eventually derail the positive tenor of relations.

While diplomats say they are able to discuss sensitive human rights issues in a formal setting with their Chinese counterparts and that this is an achievement and shift on he Chinese part, there is little evidence this discussion is resulting in any particular changes in Beijing.

The same can be said for non-proliferation or climate change; issues which British foreign policy supposedly places at the heart of its agenda. China has made moves, but it is unclear they are the product of British requests or necessarily in the direction it would want. Beyond trade – which China continues to do with anyone and remains imbalanced firmly in Beijing’s favor – it is unclear exactly what Britain gets for its friendly approach.

With the conclusion of the Expo, the seed cathedral has been dismantled. In a show of popularity, it took merely two minutes for eight thousand seeds to be sold at an online auction site in China. It remains to be seen whether these seeds will blossom into a more comprehensive bilateral relationship.

Raffaelo Pantucci, visiting scholar, Shanghai Acadamy of Social Sciences, working on a project on EU-China Relations as an EU STFP Fellow

  1. Missing Iranian nuclear scientist turns up in US…

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