The Mall looking towards Buckingham Palace, London UK

The China-Factor: Sino-British relations and the conundrum of economic and security interests

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The symposium below provides a taster of a deeper academic discussion that early-career scholars will hold at the annual BISA conference in June 2021. The King's College London-led panel, which has the same title as this post, will go on air on Wednesday 23 June, at 4pm (London, UK time). Dr Zeno Leoni will chair the presentations while Professor Astrid Nordin will discuss each individual paper.

The conundrum of economic and security interests in bilateral relations with China has become a source of tension for many countries, especially in the West. Australia, the EU, Italy, Israel, the Gulf monarchies, and even the United States have invested a great deal of energy in trying to find a coherent compromise between competing interests.

By virtue of its historically pro-free-market stance and its special strategic relationship with the US, the UK has been puzzled by this problem since the handover of Hong Kong in 1997. However, with the departure of David Cameron from Downing Street in 2016, the tension between economic and security interests in Britain’s China policy has become more palpable. The zenith of this were the Huawei’s 5G ban in the Summer 2020 and the Integrated Review in 2021. The latter described China as ‘the biggest state-based threat to the UK’s economic security’.

Although it is not clear yet whether this is a tactical or a structural shift in British foreign policy, these developments require fresh academic insights.

1) The Integrated Review of British government published in 2021 described China as a ‘systemic competitor’. What is the current state of the UK-China relation and what are the key factors driving it?

Francesca Ghiretti – It appears the EU’s tripartite approach to China (partner, economic competitor and systemic rival) is now enshrined in the UK’s, as well US’, approach. Yet, the element of economic competition is still felt less in the UK than in the other places mentioned above. The lesser degree to which China is perceived as being an economic competitor in the UK is due to two main factors: the historical economic openness of the British economy and the limited areas in which China is a direct competitor of the UK. Although the two elements above are by no means exhaustive in describing why the UK’s view of China as an economic competitor is struggling to consolidate, they are essential. If the former is embedded in the DNA of the country, the latter might fade progressively as Chinese economy shifts predominantly towards services. 

The “systemic” element, therefore, refers to the system of values; increasingly viewed as irreconcilable with that proposed by China and threatened by it. Arguably, however, before Hong Kong and recent sanctions, that element would have covered a more marginal role in shaping the relationship. 

Oliver Yule-Smith – UK-China relations are at a historical ebb. The sanctioning of British public figures by China, statements of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, the offering of a pathway to citizenship for close to 3 million Hong Kongers, the touted formation of anti-China grouping in the way of the D10. With potential future flashpoints over Myanmmar and Taiwan. Relations are bleak. Yet the Integrated Review avoid calling China a “the most acute direct threat to UK”, a label reserved for Russia. The use of competitor reflects the reality that where the UK will need to stand firm in defence of interests in Hong Kong, itself a legal obligation, and protect the UK’s “democratic sovereignty”, it will need work with China on certain global challenges like climate change. The ability to blend cooperation and competition might seem fantastical but it is already in progress. Tit-for-tat sanctions of Xinjiang while British and Chinese officials work in tandem on Myanmar in the UNSC. 

Axel Dessein – It is now of course commonplace to describe the relationship with China in terms of simultaneous competition and cooperation, rivalry and partnership. The Integrated Review talks about the character of the British-Chinese relationship in similar terms. It has been interesting to observe Britain’s response to China’s fast-tracked integration of Hong Kong but also the fiery debates in Parliament on the Genocide Amendment to the Trade Bill (and the various formats it went through). These two examples certainly speak to the post-Brexit stance that the government is pursuing. At its core, however, I believe much more work is to be done on a proper understanding not only of the ideological nature, but also of the increasingly authoritarian character of China. The country’s behaviour in recent months also speaks to that requirement, as it is something that (silent) diplomacy will not be able to solve on its own. 

Martin Thorley – The relationship is strained and the reasons are numerous. One must note that it isn’t only the UK side that has agency in this relationship. After the ‘golden era’ years, some pushback from the UK was inevitable. But this move gained considerable momentum from PRC actions in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, as well as the shift toward so-called ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy.

Many of the problems we witness at present stem from a clash of reality at the centre. As the PRC internationalises, the reality the Party can create at home by way of its considerable power over media platforms, social media and education, clashes with worldviews in countries that boast a wide range of opinions and robust debate. This mismatch at the centre will continue to manifest itself in myriad ways as the PRC interacts with the UK and other comparable countries. 

2) Is China an irresolvable conundrum for Britain? Why?

FG – To a certain degree, Britain has already solved the conundrum, if we want to call it so. It has done so by adopting a formula that condemns and opposes China in those areas where it deems condemnation and opposition are needed - like Hong Kong - but in the meantime it keeps close economic ties with the country. It is not an easy balance, and in the past, the desire for closer economic ties has overshadowed other concerns. However, the process of understanding China and the UK’s position in the past five years or so has benefited the country and given it a more balanced and realistic approach. Undeniably, there is still plenty to do, and expertise on China is much needed. However, the UK is on the right path, and so far, it has maintained a rather balanced approach that has not given in to extremes, which cannot be said for other actors.

OYS – From a UK viewpoint, “the problem of China” as Bertrand Russell coined it in 1922 has been the subject of a persistent series of debates as to how to approach China. From 1922 to 1931 it was over how to approach a modern, nationalist China shorn of the European spheres of influence policy that characterised it over the 19th century. From 1931 to 1950 it was how much was the China market, long carrying a mythical if exaggerated status for British traders and financiers. From 1950 to 1972 it was how much of a threat was a communist China to Britain in an age of decolonisation and retreat from East of Suez. From 1972 to 1997 it was over the future of Hong Kong and a changing balance of power between East and West. The legacy of these debates are what officials and ministers continue to reckon with today.

AD – I caution against descriptions of China as an “irresolvable conundrum” which, by itself, speaks to a certain exceptionalism the Communist Party of China so eagerly puts forward. However sensitive the voting process on the Genocide Amendment was, it nevertheless demonstrates that such a debate can be had successfully even in the face of an economic powerhouse as China. On that charge of genocide, of course, there is a discussion that will most likely continue. However, here again, a proper understanding of the nature and character of China can be illuminating. It will be interesting to see how Mrs Elizabeth Truss’ “values-generating and values-driven foreign policy” works out in the relationship with the country. Striking a balance between values and interests certainly ought to move away from morality and other normative approaches, two charges that are often put at our doorstep.

MT – I’d like, somewhat optimistically, to think that ultimately there are no irresolvable conundrums in international relations. That said, Britain will never answer this question unless it first knows what sort of relationship it wants. The British political landscape currently consists of various factions when it comes to the PRC, each with very different objectives.

The problem that the PRC represents at present, and it is one Britain in particular will have great difficulty solving, is the contradiction between the capitalist drive to maximise shareholder value and the revulsion caused by various party-state actions (not least in Xinjiang). Whatever path the UK decides upon, it will be best served by close cooperation with allies on PRC-related matters if it is to manage the relationship effectively. In this sense, perhaps it is best to think of the PRC not as a conundrum to solve, but a relationship to manage.

3) What recommendations would you provide to the British government?

FG – My first recommendation is to keep engaging with people with an expertise on China to better understand the country. The better the government understands China, the better it will be able to construct a successful policy. Once areas of specific interests are identified, gather multi-sectoral expertise to obtain a picture as complete as possible. The second recommendation is to stay clear of extremes and keep the debate open and fact-based, China is not all good nor all bad. This leads me to my third recommendation; avoid overemphasizing the security risks China and China’s economic presence in the UK poses to the country. There are some risks, but they are limited and thus, should be treated as such. Identified risks should be reassessed regularly, so to shape appropriate responses. Finally, geopolitical dynamics will see the UK, as well as other actors, occupy difficult positions; with very few exceptions, so far, the country has been able to strike a remarkable balance, but it will become increasingly difficult to do so. I would recommend maintaining this course of action. 

OYS – China is not an irresolvable conundrum for Britain, but it will involve imperfect solutions to highly complex issues. In tilting towards the Indo-Pacific, as presented in the Integrated Review, there are the germs of a fully formed China strategy. The UK government Indo-Pacific tilt to build partnerships with ASEAN members, strengthening supply chain resilience, acceding to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership are all useful but there are difficult decisions ahead. For example, whether to support regional partners despite their human rights record or whether to develop better relations with Taiwan. This to say nothing of the tricky domestic questions over Huawei and academic collaboration with Chinese institutions. But these decisions need to be made early, with a comprehensive study of their implications.

AD – At its core it bears repeating: a clearer understanding of China’s ideological nature and political character is what we, as (prospective) China scholars, can contribute to. The debate ought to be much clearer as to what are the actors that we are dealing with and how politics and policymaking work in the Chinese party-state. The redefining of Britain’s relationship with China will have to build on these conclusions, away from idle hope of cooperation in one area, while there is fierce competition in the other. Next year’s National Party Congress will set the tone for the decade ahead. In the meantime, giving less attention to the supposed wolf warrior diplomats can be a first step.

MT – The UK government, like many others, is currently assessing its relationship with the PRC. I’ve no doubt they receive plenty of advice, much of it good, so I will offer two points here that may not have been considered in detail.

When calculations are made about the benefits of the relationship, the UK government must ask who benefits precisely. Too often, the multibillion-pound investment is of significant worth only to high value individuals who do not even reside in the UK. Too often, the ultimate beneficiary of a deal is an offshore entity. Difficult calculations will be called for but I hope this angle is also part of the reckoning.

Second, I would urge the UK government to create a ‘worst-case scenario plan’ in the event of a rapid deterioration of relations. This could include short term issues relating to UK citizens in the PRC and longer-term economic issues relating to market diversification. Whilst it might never be required, it would be prudent to hope for the best but prepare for the worst.

If you'd like attend the more in-depth discussion on this topic at BISA 2021, register to attend now. If you're already registered you will receive joining instructions for each day of the conference on the morning they take place.

About the authors and panelists

Francesca Ghiretti is a Leverhulme doctoral candidate with the Centre for Grand Strategy at King’s College London and an Asia Research Fellow at the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) in Rome

Oliver Yule-Smith is a Leverhulme doctoral candidate in the War Studies Department at King’s College London and member of the Centre for Grand Strategy

Axel Dessein is a Leverhulme doctoral candidate at the Centre for Grand Strategy in the War Studies Department at King’s College London and a managing editor at the department’s Strife Blog

Martin Thorley is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Exeter’s Centre for Advanced International Studies. 

Astrid Nordin is Professor of Chinese International Relations at the Lau China Institute at King’s College London and a Research Fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs

Zeno Leoni is a Teaching Fellow in “Challenges to the International Order” in the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London and an Affiliate to the Lau China Institute at King’s College London