Ties between UK-China have witnessed a steady deterioration ever since the outbreak of covid19. The UK like many other countries has been seriously working towards reducing its dependence upon China, for imports of essential commodities, as well as Chinese technology (UK’s intelligence agencies, MI5 and MI6 had warned the Boris Johnson administration, that UK needs a serious rethink vis-à-vis China in the context of economic ties, and needs to be especially watchful with regard to Chinese investments in sensitive sectors).
The Boris Johnson administration is laying emphasis on shifting pharmaceutical production to UK, and focusing on reducing its dependence on China, not just for medical supplies, but for all other essential commodities. An initiative codenamed ‘Project Defend’ will focus on the above tasks.
UK’s proposal for a D10 and its efforts to strengthen ties with countries in the Asia Pacific region
In May 2020, UK had also proposed a group of democracies D10 (G7+ South Korea, India and Australia) to work jointly for developing alternatives to Chinese technologies – especially Huawei’s 5G network.
It would be pertinent to point out, that UK has also hardened its stance vis-à-vis Huawei, while in January 2020, UK had given a go-ahead to Huawei’s participation in its 5G network — with security restrictions a market cap in January 2020 — post the pandemic it had stated, that it will reduce participation of Huawei to zero by 2023. More recently, Boris Johnson stated that Huawei will be viewed as a ‘hostile state vendor’ (after tensions between both countries over China’s decision to impose the national security law in Hong Kong).
Given the changing geo-political and economic environment, in the aftermath of the pandemic, Britain which is focusing on strengthening ties with the Asia-Pacific region is also likely to sign a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Japan to bolster bilateral economic ties, and to become part of the 11 member CPTPP (Comprehensive Progressive Agreement for Trans Pacific Partnership). If Britain were to join the grouping, CPTPP’s global share of GDP would be an impressive 16%. Both these steps will enable Britain to be less dependent upon China.
Further deterioration of ties between China and Britain
In the aftermath of the covid19 epidemic, ties between London and Beijing had already soured. China’s decision to impose the national security law in Hong Kong, which according to Britain is a violation of the Sino-British joint declaration signed in 1984 (which guaranteed Hong Kong’s sovereignty through its unequivocal thrust on a ‘one country two systems’ agreement) has exacerbated tensions between Britain and China.
Hong Kong is governed by a mini-constitution titled ‘Basic Law’ which apart from the thrust on the ‘one country two systems’ principle, also upholds Hong Kong’s ‘liberal policies, system of governance, independent judiciary, and individual freedoms for a period of 50 years from 1997’. Britain has argued, that the imposition of the National Security Law is in violation of the above principles.
The British government has announced, that it will offer 3 million residents of Hong Kong (much to the chagrin of China) the option to come to the UK for a period of 5 years. 3,50,000 British passport holders and 2.6 million others who are eligible will be provided this option.
China’s Ambassador in UK, Liu Xiaoming warned that UK’s offer of citizenship to Hong Kong residents, and a boycott of Huawei’s 5G network would significantly dent the bilateral relationship. He went to the extent of stating, that Britain should avoid treating China as an enemy. Britain and China share close economic ties, and Chinese students are the largest group within international students pursuing higher education in the UK. It would be pertinent to point out, that China has taken strong economic measures vis-à-vis Australia, due to Canberra’s demand for an inquiry into the origins of covid19, and it remains to be seen if it will take similar steps vis-à-vis Britain.
With the US, Australia, Britain, Canada and India adopting a strong posture vis-à-vis Beijing, China is certainly on the back foot. The tone of publications like the Global Times, a mouthpiece of the Chinese government, clearly indicates, that China is carefully watching policy measures being taken by countries in Europe and Asia to reduce economic dependence on China in the aftermath of covid19. Beijing has also got unsettled by the resistance to its hegemonic designs and aggressive actions by not just the US, but Britain as well.
What is also evident is that Britain is seeking to revive its importance in the geo-political context by strengthening economic ties with Asia Pacific countries, and promoting groupings like D10. Britain’s firm stance vis-à-vis China after the imposition of the National Security Law in Hong Kong has also reiterated the point that in the aftermath of covid19, it is unlikely to kowtow to China in spite of close economic linkages.
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Consulting Editor, Geopolitics with The Dispatch, Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based Policy Analyst. He is associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonepat, Haryana. He is a former SAV Visiting Fellow (Winter 2016) with the Stimson Centre, Washington DC. Mr Maini was also an Asia Society India-Pakistan Regional Young Leaders Initiative (IPRYLI) Fellow (2013-14), and a Public Policy Scholar with The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, Chennai (November 2013-March 2014). His research interests include; the role of Punjab in India-Pakistan ties, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the changing nature of Indian federalism. He is a contributor for a number of publications including; The Hindu, The Diplomat, Modern Diplomacy and The Geopolitics.