Posts Tagged ‘UK foreign policy’

And more catch-up posting, this a short piece ahead of British Prime Minister Theresa May’s visit to China for my institutional home RUSI.

Theresa May in China: The Essence of a Working Relationship

ximay

Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary30 January 2018
ChinaUK

Prime Minister Theresa May undertakes her long-awaited visit to Beijing tomorrow. It gives London an opportunity to define and shape its relationship with China, and move it beyond behind-the-scenes sniping and grandiose public rhetoric.

 

Prime Minister Theresa May travels to Beijing tomorrow hoping to shore up trade deals post-Brexit with the world’s second-largest economy amid reports of tensions surrounding the UK’s willingness to formally sign up to China’s flagship Belt and Road initiative (BRI).

Despite May’s reluctance to sign up to the BRI, the UK is already deeply intertwined with the multibillion dollar project.

The UK was the first G7 power to join the Chinese-instigated Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB), a platform aimed to support China’s outward infrastructure push; a report from 2015 by the China-Britain Business Council and Tsinghua University showed how UK companies were already doing projects worth around $27bn with Chinese firms in BRI locations. In addition, any British company worth its mettle with deep interests in China has had an established BRI strategy for some time.

And, as Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond stated at last year’s Belt and Road summit in Beijing, ‘As China drives forward the Belt and Road initiative from the East we in Britain are a natural partner in the West’.

In sum, the UK is already playing a role in the initiative, although questions persist about how the UK can connect with President Xi Jinping’s globe-spanning vision. There are four elements that should guide Britain in this debate.

First, build on existing connections. There is often a public misconception that the BRI is a large aid project. Indeed, the initiative amounts to a vision for improving connectivity across the Eurasian landmass, through underdeveloped countries that need infrastructure development, but it does this using Chinese funds and enterprises. Often projects are financed using linked loans provided to countries with stipulations of using Chinese contractors.

The entry point into this business chain for non-Chinese companies has, therefore to be an existing link with a Chinese firm or bank, rather than necessarily waiting for contracts to be pushed out into the open market.

Foreign companies that can develop such arrangements are  likely to be those already connected to Chinese firms or Banks and have a longstanding presence in Beijing, a deep history in the target market or those with specific technical know-how that is required in delivery of the ultimate project which the Chinese firm is lacking.

Second, British corporate actors should focus on foreign markets where the UK has an edge. Chinese banks and enterprises will often not have the necessary history or expertise in a target market and this provides an opportunity for British corporations or policymakers.

Certain niche opportunities include, for example, Pakistan, where the legal system is largely modelled on Britain, Kazakhstan whose major firms are listed on UK stock exchanges and, until recently, the UK was Kenya’s largest source of foreign direct investment (FDI). All three of these countries are identified as key BRI states, and all are where the UK has deep experience which can be leveraged, together with Chinese companies penetrating that market.

Third, British planners and commercial actors must remember that Chinese infrastructure investment in many countries will potentially create opportunities for a next wave of investments. The BRI is about building trade and economics corridors, often starting with much-needed infrastructure.

However, for this to provide benefits to locals, and generate a sustainable future, it will need to be developed into a broader economy. Something that will require many ancillary projects and construction.

Targeting this next wave of projects which build on the initial Chinese-dominated infrastructure wave is going to be key in ensuring the long-term viability of the BRI.

Government departments, such as the Department for International Development and the Department for International Trade, should, therefore, concentrate on this potential next wave, seeking both the trade opportunities, but also separately ensuring that poverty alleviation, environmental and sustainable development goals are advanced in relevant locations. In other words, BRI should be piggybacked by outside powers like the UK.

Beyond the BRI, the UK must establish a more coherent and considered security relationship with China. This includes considering the many key UK security relationships that may clash with Beijing’s view of the world. However, it needs to recognise that, as one of the world’s major economies, China will have an international security footprint.

Engaging with this footprint, cooperating where useful (in counterterrorism, in countries where we have shared interests such as Afghanistan, in military operations other than conflict like rescuing nationals or alleviating humanitarian disasters), while not shying away from criticising when relevant remain key ingredients.

Drawing ‘red lines’ while continuing to engage remains the only practical way to manage such an emergent security power. The reality is that a global interconnected world is one that currently favours China and one that Beijing wants to maintain.

Finally, the UK needs to focus on continuing to push China to open its markets further. Among European economies, the UK is one of the most open and attractive to Chinese investors.

According to cumulative figures published by the Rhodium Group, the UK attracted some €23.6 billion in Chinese FDI between 2000–2016. Next closest was Germany at €18.8 billion.

Consequently, it is only proper that Britain should expect some reciprocation and should be willing to draw lines around investments that are made into the UK.

And this reciprocation has to be founded on improving the rule of law and accountability in China. And when this is not met, then clear lines need to be drawn in return about the degree to which China is allowed to invest in the UK.

It is also equally important for the UK to remember that Asia’s rise is not just a Chinese story. Beijing is the most prominent of several ascending Asian powers, and the UK needs to enhance its diplomatic and security engagement across the region.

This is something that the UK needs to do while at the same time continuing to enhance its engagement with Europe. As a power making an active choice to withdraw from one of the world’s most powerful economic and political blocs, the UK needs to engage in deft diplomacy around the world and demonstrate its continuing relevance as a major player on the world stage.

Prime Minister Theresa May meets Chinese President Xi Jinping at the State Guesthouse, on the second day of the 2016 G20 Summit in Hangzhou, China. Courtesy of PA Images

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution

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Slightly delayed posting of a new piece for my institutional home RUSI looking at how the UK should connect with Asia in the new Trumpian world. It struck me as interesting that while the US elected a President who spoke of isolation and scrapping treaties, the Chinese Premier tracked the new Silk Roads in China’s ongoing burst of international connectivity. Separately, spoke to the Guardian about the latest possible death of Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

Britain and Asia in a Trumpian World: Only Connect

As the US appears set to limit its global involvement under President-elect Donald Trump and China intensifies its engagements across the world, an opportunity has arisen for Britain. It is one the UK government should seize.
hammond-xi
The contrast could hardly be greater: as the US voted in a president who has not committed himself to free trade and is keen on closed borders, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang crossed the new Silk Road from China to Europe through Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Latvia, promoting precisely the opposite ideas.

And with concrete results. In Gwadar, Pakistan, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif watched as the first load of products to make the journey down the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor from western China leave for the seas. As America closes in on itself, Eurasia is opening up ever more. And the British government, which has not missed these trends, needs to develop a more strategic approach if it is going to effectively position itself to take advantage of them.

In stark contrast to the apocalyptic vision of international relations which seems to be associated with US President-elect Donald Trump, China’s economy is pushing itself ever-more aggressively into the world. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ‘Belt and Road’ concept has become an all-encompassing foreign policy vision, espousing trade and connectivity with talk of the ‘revival of silk roads’ and ‘connectivity’. Nowhere is this clearer than in Eurasia, where China is re-drawing the economic and geopolitical map, as it steers money, companies and people into re-establishing Eurasian continental links.

Li’s tour in many ways mirrored Xi’s in June, when he travelled to Serbia, Poland and then Uzbekistan. And while the announcement of the first load of trucks making it from Kashgar in western China to the coast in Baluchistan was actually far more symbolic than economically significant, it did show how ‘Belt and Road’ connectivity rhetoric was producing results.

It is on this divergence of global attitudes between a retreating US and a thrusting China that UK and other middle powers would do well to focus. A simplification, perhaps, but clearly something is fundamentally shifting and in a world of growing giants, the UK needs to focus on how it can best position itself against these shifting tectonic plates.

The answer for London is a need for greater and closer engagement. With the US, it is likely too early to decide on how to deal with a Trumpian America. However, with China, the answer is to find ways to connect with this surge of Eurasian connectivity. At the same time, London has also to find ways of engaging more seriously with other Asian partners by taking advantage of the broader global shift taking place. Asia is a story of multiple rising giants, and the UK is well regarded by many of them. Britain has long under-performed in its engagement in Asian strategic and security affairs and now is the moment to take a more substantial posture on the issues that preoccupy its partners there.

The current British government has already started to make noises in this direction: while Li was crossing the continent and the US was voting for Trump, Prime Minister Theresa May was in India and Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond hosted the latest Economic and Financial Dialogue with China in London. These moves need to be matched by a more serious engagement in regional strategic and security affairs.

Both China and India realise their growing weight in international affairs and want to engage with the UK as a serious power, but are often concerned that London does not take their strategic concerns seriously. This is likely less true for China than India. However, at the same time, the fact the UK has such an enhanced and visible engagement with China is having a detrimental knock-on effect on other Asian partners for whom China is a competitor and antagonist.

There are two important aspects from this for the UK to note. First, London needs to establish a more comprehensive and strategic dialogue with Asia. This means not just paying lip service to regional security questions, but playing a more forward role in engaging and understanding them. British diplomatic, analysis and security personnel across Asia and in government offices in London need to be enhanced and bolstered so that policymakers have a more substantial understanding of Asian dynamics and a demonstrable desire to engage in them.

Second, the UK needs to move forwards into playing a more engaged strategic role. Rather than continuing as a passive observer of regional dynamics, the UK should move into a position where it can build on its existing relationships to play the role of regional peace-broker.

To focus on Eurasia in particular: the current Chinese-driven surge of connectivity has the potential to be a collective net boon, but at the moment it is only partially working. Hiccups such as regional neighbours refusing to let products travel across their borders, or China being unable to resolve long-standing historical tensions, have hindered the smooth progress of the Belt and Road concept. If London stepped in to find a unique role as broker and diplomat between regional powers, it could help to encourage the aspiration of connectivity which serves a broader group of nations than just China.

Looking at South Asia, the UK’s relationships with both India and Pakistan place it in a unique position to try to lower tensions. Admittedly not an easy task, and one that has been attempted in fits and starts for some time, but a more focused effort on both sides of the border might help show a level of strategic seriousness that the UK is accused of missing in its current pursuit of trade deals.

By stepping forward to play this role – a position that may become vacant if Trump’s isolationist America happens – the UK will be able to carve a new role for itself in the world, one which benefits more from Asian growth without being too openly mercantilist.

The UK has been somewhat rudderless strategically since the referendum in June to leave the EU.

The election of Trump has further accentuated this perception, and there is a palpable concern about what might comes next. But the world has kept turning, and Chinese-driven Eurasian connectivity continues its inexorable surge. If the UK wants to truly benefit from this shifting world order, it needs to rapidly define where exactly it will sit and what it will bring to the table. Engaging more seriously and substantially in Asian strategic affairs would be an important place to start.

 

 

Some belated posting of which I have a bit to do, this one for the Telegraph about the furore around the Hinkey Power Plant deal and China-UK relations. A difficult topic which is still in a very complex phase. Been trying to finish some very delayed writing projects that is keeping me busy and has some angry editors after me. Apologies to them. A spate of China related material which reflects something there is going to be an increasing amount of over the next period.

How to avoid nuclear fallout and become equal partners with China

Last week’s announcement delaying the decision on the Hinkley C nuclear power plant project has turned into a running commentary on the changing nature of the UK’s relationship with China. While Downing Street has been at pains to highlight that the decision is not linked to Beijing, much has been read into statements through the public news agency Xinhua that seem to foreshadow a veiled warning about the UK’s “golden age” with China being under threat. These proclamations need to be tempered by reality, however, and a realization that China is a pragmatic actor which will continue to seek the best deal it is able to achieve rather than pursuing an entirely quixotic foreign trade and investment agenda.

This is not say that China is not prone to publicly punish countries that have displeased it. Norway has faced a barrage of mostly symbolic sanctions since in 2011 the Nobel Prize Committee gave an award to incarcerated dissident Liu Xiaobo. In the wake of David Cameron’s meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2012, the UK faced a similar slap-down with diplomats’ lives in Beijing made more difficult and the Prime Minister having a number of visits postponed. In 2010, a pair of German researchers undertook a study using UN data from 1991 to 2008 on the “Dalai Lama effect”, whereby they identified an 8.1 per cent drop in exports to China in the two years after a nation’s leader met with the Dalai Lama.

Yet these numbers do not appear to tell the whole tale. During the period of Norwegian “punishment” (which according to some accounts continues today), the majority government owned oil company Statoil was still able to explore shale gas projects in China, and opened a research center in Beijing. In the UK’s case, it is inconclusive whether there was a definitive drop in trade figures during this period, though it is noticeable that in the immediate week after the fateful meeting between the Prime Minister and the Dalai Lama, a deal worth £50 million was signed between the UK and China to export pig offal and trotters for consumption in China.

Some apparent attempts by China to impose economic punishments on countries that have displeased them have backfired. In 2010, there was a spat between China and Japan over a fishing boat captain whose ship crashed into Japanese vessels in disputed waters; China subsequently moved to make the export of rare earth minerals more expensive. It is a matter of speculation whether the point here was to support domestic industry over outsiders or whether this was specifically targeted at Japan, whose high tech industry relies heavily on rare earths which at the time were 97% controlled by China (or some combination of the two). Whatever the case, the result was that other rare earth sources became economically viable, destroying China’s previous market monopoly.

China is in fact a pragmatic actor in international affairs. When its companies have faced pushback due to domestic concerns, often they have continued forwards in other ways. China has quite rigid domestic restrictions about what industries outsiders can invest into, so finds it hard to overtly attack others for doing the same thing. Often the rhetoric does not match the action, and the new government in Downing Street would do well to understand this distinction and calibrate its response appropriately. The decision over a nuclear power plants is an important one with substantial national ramifications for years to come, and it makes sense the new government would want to take time to ensure they are happy with the deal. Going forwards, however, it is important to ensure that a productive relationship is maintained with Beijing, a power that is only going to grow in significance as time goes on.

In order to ensure a smooth engagement with China and Asia more broadly, a number of steps should be taken: first, the UK should be consistent and long-term. Wild oscillations in policy and approach are not appreciated by Beijing (or any other government). We should seek a relationship of working together as partners with China while setting parameters. Concerns over human rights should be raised – as they are already – and pushing back on China’s aggressive cyber activities should continue. As the United States has shown in its relationship with China, these issues can be raised whilst maintaining a productive overall relationship.

Second, it is important to realize why China likes to invest in the UK. As an open market, the UK is an attractive option for Chinese businessmen looking for opportunities overseas. According to figures published by the Mercator Institute for China Studies and the Rhodium Group, between 2000 and 2014 the UK attracted more FDI from China than any other European country. While the status of the UK market’s relationship with the EU is uncertain longer term, for the time being the UK will remain a major financial hub and discussions and deals continue. Reflecting this, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) met earlier this week to discuss how financial products can work between both jurisdictions.

Third, the UK should seek to engage with China in third markets like Pakistan, Central Asia or parts of Africa where the UK has strong historical economic and political interests and China is increasing its presence. In some countries in this category, Britain and China are competitors, but in others, there is an element of complementarity. Exploring these opportunities will help British business going global, as well as improving the quality and effectiveness of Chinese investments in parts of the developing world.

Fourth, the UK should raise its game and attention to East Asian security issues like the disputes in the South and East China Seas, or the ongoing difficulties with North Korea. Currently, Britain is seen as a part-time player, second fiddle to the US in this sphere. Establishing a distinct and comprehensive understanding of these questions, the relevant relationships, as well as expressing informed views about regional problems and backing them with diplomatic heft would go a long way towards balancing the UK’s approach to the region.

Handled badly, Britain’s relationship with China could suffer in the wake of the delay to the Hinkley Point deal. However, if care is paid to engaging China in ways that are of interest to Beijing and that advance British interests, it is possible to find a way forwards in which the UK can express its concerns while continuing to attract Chinese investment and trade. Beijing is seeking partners as much as the UK is, and in the current state of global uncertainty it would seem unwise to cut off relations with another G7 power. The trick will be to establish the contours of the relationship and make sure that both sides are telegraphing each other’s intent with clarity and with a view to the long-term.

This is my attempt to offer some ideas for the UK post-Brexit for my home institution at RUSI. The vote was not in the direction I would have chosen, and it is not clear how things will shake out in the long-term (as in what will the UK’s relationship with the EU look like), but it feels like the UK needs to think seriously about what it is going to do in the world next.

Beyond this, spoke to CNN and CNBC in the wake of the Istanbul airport attack, La Repubblica in the wake of the Dhaka attack, and Eurasianet after the SCO Summit.

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Brexit: A Case for British Recalibration In Relation To Asia and Africa

Commentary1 July 2016

AfricaBrexit BriefingsCentral and South AsiaPacificUKInternational Security Studies

The Brexit vote has created an urgent need for the United Kingdom to redefine its global identity if it is to remain a leading player in international affairs. Re- assessing relationships with Asia and Africa might be a good place to start.

The British electorate has made a momentous foreign policy decision, the ramifications of which will not be fully understood for some time. But whilst the full consequences may not yet be clear, the country’s decision has already had an impact on how it is perceived – and treated – by the rest of the world. It is therefore imperative that the country starts to think about crafting a new role, adjacent to its European one, and redefining its identity in an international context. This should be built on advancing liberal ideals and values to the world, whilst seeking out new markets and opportunities and ensuring that British national security and interests lie at the heart of foreign policy.

The UK still has a number of strong cards in its hand. These include its membership of NATO, its seat at the United Nations Security Council, membership of the Five Eyes intelligence community, of the G7 group of industrialised states and the world-wide links that the Commonwealth family of nations brings, in addition to the availability of the City of London as one of the world’s biggest trading hubs and a language that is the universal mode of communication. Success however will depend on whether these advantages can be translated into a new series of international relations in a world with a growing number of superpowers.

The first port of call after Europe must be Asia. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to the UK gave birth to a ‘global comprehensive strategic partnership for the 21st Century,’ whilst during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit, Prime Minister David Cameron told a packed Wembley stadium that ‘team India, team UK – together we are a winning combination’. Not long before the EU referendum, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the UK in order to reaffirm the strong bond between the two countries, stressing that ‘we are clear that we are stronger when we work together – both bilaterally and alongside our international partners’.

Whilst there is no doubt that the UK will now be perceived as a different power by these Asian giants, it will nonetheless still be a significant power. Its seat at the UNSC will guarantee that it will have a voice in the conversation, but the UK needs to initiate a programme  of intense diplomacy and engagement to convince the world that, from its position outside the European Union, it still has a distinct role to play on the international stage.

First, it needs to ensure the message gets across that the country is open for investment and will continue to be an attractive trade partner. Asian markets reacted badly to the decision to withdraw from the EU and are still fragile in the face of a Chinese slowdown.

Second, the UK needs to find a way to strengthen its voice on crucial Asian security and political questions. Until now, the country has played a secondary role in the majority of Asia’s most difficult security questions, focusing more on its partnerships with Europe or its alliance with the United States and using them as vectors to engage with regional Asian security issues. While these  partnerships will remain important, by demonstrating a deeper understanding of regional security issues the UK will show that it is not just there for mercantile reasons, but through a desire to engage, influence and support.

Thirdly, the UK needs to focus on engaging with the flow of  Asian capital into bigger regional or global projects; China’s ‘Belt and Road’ vision, India’s ‘Act East’ policy and Japan’s continuing strategic engagement with its neighbours all create opportunities for the UK to engage with third countries, alongside and together with these Asian giants. This can take the form of joint investments and projects, but also the use of  British relations and diplomacy to help deepen the UK’s strategic engagement with these Asian giants across the developing world.

Finally, the UK needs to peer beyond the Asian giants of today and look to the next potential rising wave: powers like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Burma, Indonesia or the Philippines are at very different stages of development, but have massive populations that will inevitably grow in size, power and eventually influence. Forging strong relations in development, trade, economics and security sooner rather than later will help to establish the UK as a relevant player at the heart of the emerging Asia.

Beyond Asia, the UK needs to also look more closely at Africa, a continent that has largely been relegated in most British government planning to the status of being either a security concern or a development project. While these issues are undoubtedly important in terms of UK engagement with the African continent, focusing on them alone risks missing significant opportunities for economic engagement.  Across Africa, there is a grass roots community of small to medium entrepreneurs who are creating a new commercial climate. By finding ways of engaging with this community, helping them connect with British counterparts, as well as continuing to focus on reform, development and engagement with Asian powers as they invest in large scale infrastructure projects across the continent, the UK can successfully re-position and redefine itself globally.

It will of course be impossible to know if any engagement, financial, diplomatic or otherwise will be able to replace what is likely to be lost by the Brexit decision. But in order to ensure that the UK does not become merely an island off the coast of Europe in more than a geographic sense, there is a need for the country to move quickly and find a way to reposition itself as a power with influence and relationships that enable  it to punch well above its weight. This may seem a daunting task, but it it’s not an impossible one.

Another foreign language piece I’m afraid, this time for one of the more liberal Chinese newspapers, the Oriental Morning Post. Sketches out what China should hopefully learn from Libya, though I know friends in China tell me I am being optimistic. The actual text can be found here, and below is what I initially submitted in English. The version published is slightly abbreviated.

What China Should be Learning from Libya

There is a sense of confusion in the Chinese press and decision-making community about what exactly is driving British and French actions in Libya. The cynics say that this is a show of force by weak governments embarrassed by their histories with Colonel Gadaffi, others say it is part of shoring up weakening domestic support for Nicholas Sarkozy and David Cameron, while yet others say it is a traditional war for oil. But all of these miss the key lesson that should be drawn from the crisis: bad governance is something that cannot be simply allowed to fester.

Whatever the reasons for the west now deciding to get involved, they are having to do this because they allowed Colonel Gadaffi to mismanage his country for too long. Ever since he admitted to developing a nuclear program and handing over the material to American and British secret services, Colonel Gadaffi has been readmitted into the international community. Contracts and contacts were developed as Libya opened its doors to foreign investment, including a substantial volume of Chinese businesses and citizens.

But at no point was any consideration given to the fact that Colonel Gadaffi was continuing to run his country as though it was a bank account accessible only to himself and his direct family and tribe. His dreaded secret police enforced a brutal security regime that allowed no discussion of the justness of the Colonel’s regime. Islamists both dangerous and not were incarcerated en masse, while torture was periodically practiced in prisons. And at the same time, while the Colonel and his family did well from the inflows of foreign investment, the Libyan people failed to profit much from this boom.

The result was a tinderbox of angry and disenfranchised population with a detached and kleptocratic regime surrounded by a police state willing to practice any action to maintain power. It was only a matter of time before it descended into the chaos that we are now seeing nightly on our television screens. And as a result it was only a matter of time before China would be obliged to shut down its vast investments in the country and evacuate its more than 30,000 citizens working in the country.

This mass evacuation both shows China’s growing capacity as a global power, but also highlights its growing presence in the world. On the one hand the nation needs to be applauded for its ability to get so many citizens to safety in such rapidity, but at the same time, it should consider that larger lesson that needs to be drawn from this and that is that bad governance is something that needs to be addressed.

This does not mean that China should be expected to copy Britain and France’s actions and support rebels in every country that is governed badly. But it should give some more serious consideration to the fact that the current policy of rigid non-interference is something that is clearly leaving large Chinese investments and growing numbers of Chinese citizens in unstable nations with governments that are susceptible to collapses like Libya. The result is an expensive evacuation, loss of material, and the need for China to once again have to choose sides in the United Nations Security Council. Far better to try to catch such situations before they descend into civil war and to try to stimulate the leadership to improve their domestic situation using the carrot of investment as a motivator.

China is already a major investor in many parts of the world where such similar future situations can be envisioned. The role it plays is a positive one in helping underdeveloped nations, but at the moment it lacks any directive to try to improve the internal situation in the country. By using this power to try to influence nations to improve their domestic situations, China can help both guarantee her investments but also improve the national situation. In this way China can use its growing global economic presence to make the world a more stable place and take its role as a responsible stakeholder in the global community.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (SASS).

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