United Kingdom-China Relations in the Post-Brexit Era

Article

This paper aims to analyze the relationship between China and the United Kingdom in the post-Brexit era. With this goal in mind, the paper will first analyze the recent political-diplomatic developments taking place between the two countries. Secondly, the paper will elaborate on the economic dimension of bilateral relations. Thirdly, the paper will focus on discussions about post-Brexit bilateral relations....

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Ozan ÖRMECİ[1]
Asst. Prof. Dr. Sina KISACIK[2]


Abstract: As permanent members of the United Nations (UN) Security Council, the People’s Republic of China (China) and United Kingdom (UK) are leading actors of global politics and central states in the current international system. While the UK was a superpower until the mid-20th century and is still one of the most developed economies and influential diplomatic centers of the world, China on the other hand is a candidate for being a new superpower thanks to its rapid economic rise in the last few decades, a serious contender to the only existing superpower, the United States (U.S.), and a rising power in all aspects despite having an authoritarian single-party system led by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This study aims to analyze the relationship between China and the United Kingdom in the post-Brexit era. With this goal in mind, the paper will first analyze the recent political-diplomatic developments taking place between the two countries. Secondly, the paper will elaborate on the economic dimension of bilateral relations. The third part of the paper will focus on discussions about post-Brexit bilateral relations. Fourthly, the energy-based relations between Russia and China, and Russia and the UK, will be analyzed by focusing on noteworthy projects. This part will also cover the nuclear power plant case between Beijing and London. The research will be based on the analysis of primary and secondary sources in terms of UK-China relations in English and Turkish languages. In that sense, declarations from the two countries’ leaders (Chinese Presidents and UK Prime Ministers) and top state officials (diplomatic representatives and top intelligence officers) will be used as primary sources, whereas books, academic articles, think-tank and academic website reports, analyses, and various news in the media will be used as secondary sources.

Keywords: United Kingdom-China relations, Brexit, Hong Kong, Huawei, Covid-19, Energy Security.

1. Introduction

As permanent members of the United Nations (UN) Security Council, the People’s Republic of China (China) and United Kingdom (UK) are leading actors of global politics and central states in the current international system. While the UK was a superpower until the mid-20th century and is still one of the most developed economies and influential diplomatic centers of the world, China on the other hand is a candidate for being a new superpower thanks to its rapid economic rise in the last few decades, a serious contender to the only existing superpower, the United States (U.S.), and a rising power in all aspects despite having an authoritarian single-party system led by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

This paper aims to analyze the relationship between China and the United Kingdom in the post-Brexit era. With this goal in mind, the paper will first analyze the recent political-diplomatic developments taking place between the two countries. Secondly, the paper will elaborate on the economic dimension of bilateral relations. Thirdly, the paper will focus on discussions about post-Brexit bilateral relations. Fourthly, the energy-based relations between Russia and China, and Russia and the UK, will be analyzed by focusing on noteworthy projects. This part will also cover the nuclear power plant case between Beijing and London. The research will be based on the analysis of primary and secondary sources in terms of UK-China relations in English and Turkish languages. In that sense, declarations from the two countries’ leaders (Chinese Presidents and UK Prime Ministers) and top state officials (diplomatic representatives and top intelligence officers) will be used as primary sources, whereas books, academic articles, think-tank and academic website reports, analyses, and various news in the media will be used as secondary sources.

2. UK-China Relations: Recent History

The United Kingdom became the first Western country to establish diplomatic relations with China by recognizing the communist government in Beijing on January 6, 1950 during the Prime Ministry of Clement Attlee. While this particular policy took criticism from other Western capitals, according to David C. Wolf, to understand the British foreign policy of the time, one should keep in mind former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s famous dictum: “The reason for having diplomatic relations is not to confer a compliment, but to secure a convenience[3]. Accordingly, Wolf thought that although London supported the nationalists against the communists during the civil war and never approved of the communist system, in order to protect its interests and investments in China and within the region, it decided to establish formal diplomatic relations with Beijing.[4] In that sense, Labour Party MP Wilfrid Vernon’s speech criticizing the Chiang Kai-shek government on January 23, 1948 and then-British ambassador to China Ralph Stevenson’s (1946-1950) reports suggesting that British interests could be better defended with a communist government became important turning points for Whitehall.[5] Following diplomatic recognition, diplomatic relations actively started with the opening of the diplomatic residences at the level of chargé d’affaires on June 17, 1954.[6] However, the two countries did not exchange ambassadors for the first time until 1972. Accordingly, Sir John Addis (1972-1974)[7] became the first British ambassador to Beijing and Song Zhiguang (1972-1977)[8] became the first Chinese ambassador to London. The two countries also exchanged military attachés in the same year. However, Sino-British relations could not be developed rapidly in the 1950s due to the Korean War (1950-1953) and the emergence of the Cold War which tore the two countries apart, and into different geopolitical blocs.

But with the ‘Sino-Soviet split’ in the 1960s, China had begun to transform into an important actor for Western countries, including the UK. Through diplomacy orchestrated by U.S. National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, President Richard Nixon and the American administration recognized China in 1971 and China replaced Taiwan in the UN Security Council. As a result, Sino-British relations also began to develop in the 1970s and the 1980s. In November 1978, during the Prime Ministry of James Callaghan, the two countries’ Foreign Ministers David Owen and Wang Chen signed the Agreement on Scientific and Technological Cooperation and over 20 other agreements or memoranda were signed by relevant departments or institutions.[9] Following this agreement, the first official state visit between the two countries took place in October 1979 when the Chinese Prime Minister Hua Guofeng visited London. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on the other hand visited China twice in 1982 and 1984.[10] The second visit was particularly important since the two countries signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984 to determine the future of Hong Kong and the conditions of its handover to China. The agreement was based on two main issues: (1) Hong Kong be delivered to China in 1997, (2) but retain the right to keep its autonomy for 50 more years. British monarch Queen Elizabeth II also visited China during this period and her 1986 visit marked an important turning point for the inclusion of China into the international system. During the 1980s, China’s privileged position in the Western world persisted due to Beijing’s problems with Soviet Russia, starting with the Sino-Soviet split and Western supported Chinese market reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping.[11]

But the rapprochement between London and Beijing ended sharply due to the 1989 Tiananmen Square Incident. After this event, Beijing was again singled out as a non-Western and non-democratic state and Western sanctions began to be implemented against China.[12] Although Conservative PM John Major’s visit to Beijing in 1997 refreshed bilateral relations, cold winds between the two capitals continued due to the Hong Kong issue and negative stereotypes against China, mostly caused by the Tiananmen Incident, until Labour chair Tony Blair became the new British leader.

The Tony Blair era (1997-2007) on the other hand was very positive for British-Chinese relations. The two countries peacefully solved the Hong Kong issue in 1997 and Hong Kong was delivered to Chinese sovereignty under special conditions. The last British Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, defined British rule in the island by the notion of “responsibility“ as opposed to “colonialism“ during his farewell speech, and praised the developed status of Hong Kong.[13] In 1998, Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Zhu Rongji exchanged official visits and spoke of “comprehensive partnership“ for the first time.[14] Cultural and education-based relations progressed during the Blair period, and with China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, economic relations also began to develop rapidly as China became an important center for the global economy via new market reforms.[15] Thus, the Blair period -similar to the David Cameron era- represents a ‘golden age’ in terms of British-Chinese relations.

During the short period of Gordon Brown rule (2007-2010), the optimistic mood of the Blair period continued. The two countries even initiated the UK-China Economic and Financial Dialogue (EFD) talks to add an institutional mechanism to their official relations.[16]

The best years in Britain-China relations began when Conservative leader David Cameron became the new British PM in 2010. The Cameron period (2010-2016) is often cited as the ‘golden age’ in bilateral relations due to developing economic relations and cultural ties, as well as the emergence of mutual political sympathy. Cameron visited China for the first time in 2013 with a large delegation of business people and offered a model of “economic growth partnership“ to Beijing.[17] Relations developed so quickly that Britain began to be considered as “China’s best friend“ in the Western world despite the negative historical background.[18] In 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s official visit to Britain became a sensation in international media and the four day visit led to the spread of a positive atmosphere and optimistic mood for the future of bilateral relations. With this visit, the two countries agreed on the establishment of a new nuclear plant in Hinkley Point, Somerset, and the two leaders gave very positive messages for the future of economic relations.[19] As part of the visit, President Xi visited Manchester City football club’s training facilities together with Cameron. Moreover, Xi’s toast with the charming Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, caused a stir in the media. In addition, in 2015, 50 billion dollars’ worth of economic agreements were declared between the two capitals.[20] Relations developed so quickly during this period that the then-British ambassador to Beijing, Sebastian Wood, stated in 2014 that “in the last 18 months, more investments came to Britain from China compared to the earlier 30 years“.[21] The 2015 visit was also important because the two countries officially declared each other as “comprehensive strategic partner[s]“.[22] After this visit, a special fund worth 750 million pounds was set up with British PM David Cameron assuming a special role to take charge of transportation and other infrastructural investments between the two countries as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).[23] In addition, Chinese banks such as the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China and the China Construction Bank were granted the right to open branches in Britain in the same year. Furthermore, with the efforts of the British Council, the two countries mutually declared Cultural Exchange Year in 2015 for the first time in their history.[24]

If we have to make an analysis of the Cameron period, we can conclude that both countries acted with an economic mind during this era and ignored their political and cultural differences for the sake of economic growth and profit. This helped the Chinese public to get rid of the bad memories of their history related to the ‘Century of Humiliation’, and helped the British public to accept China with all its perceived peculiarities. That is why; many experts define the Cameron era as the ‘golden age’ of British-Chinese relations. While Cary Huang thought this term exaggerated due to persisting political disagreements between the two capitals[25], Kerry Brown wrote that using this term is right because China was given the credit it deserved in Britain during this era[26]. The only crisis of the Cameron period took place when the British PM met with Tibet’s spiritual leader the Dalai Lama in 2012.[27] Moreover, after the unexpected ‘leave’ decision came out of the Brexit referendum in 2016, relations began to be stagnating as Britain aimed at restoring its historical ties with the U.S. and Commonwealth states in the post-Brexit era.

During Theresa May’s term as Prime Minister (2016-2019), the two countries tried to keep the high status and level of bilateral relations, but political problems began to materialize. Theresa May declared her “Global Britain“ vision after becoming the new PM and underlined the aim to develop relations with all countries.[28] Accordingly, the two countries successfully completed the London-Yiwu railway project in 2017.[29] Moreover, Chinese renminbi (RMB) was given the right to be used in the London Stock Exchange in 2016.[30] Although the May era was in some ways the continuation of the Cameron period, according to Philip Le Corre, May was less optimistic and willing about relations with Beijing[31], a view that was supported by Chow, Han, and Li as well.[32] During this period, then-Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond stated that they were ready to provide 25 billion pounds in financial support to the BRI.[33] Thanks to the progress made in the Cameron period, the UK became the 8th biggest trade partner of China and rose to second position among European states.[34] In addition, Prime Minister May visited China in early 2018 with a group of British business people and signed 9.3 billion pounds’ worth of economic deals in Beijing.[35] In that sense, the May period was the continuation of Cameron’s term in the economic domain, whereas in politics, with the ‘Trump effect’, Britain began to become distanced from Beijing.

The ongoing Boris Johnson era (2019- ) is still unclear in terms of Britain-China relations. Although PM Johnson previously made statements showing his good will to make more business with China, his close stance to the U.S. and Britain’s decision to join the recently inaugurated AUKUS shows that the current British administration politically distances itself from Beijing. Moreover, since the UK has close ties and a ‘special relationship’ with the U.S. and the current U.S. President Joe Biden is not very much different than previous President Donald Trump in terms of his approach to China, it might be difficult to attain the success level of the Cameron period during Johnson’s leadership. One other thing to be mentioned here is the historical political stance of British conservatism against communist regimes, both as an ideological motive and a traditional political behavior.
 
 

[1] Associate Professor at Istanbul Kent University’s Political Science and Public Administration (English) department.
Email: ozan.ormeci@kent.edu.tr / ozanormeci@gmail.com.
ORCID: 0000-0001-8850-6089.
[2] Assistant Professor at Cyprus Science University’s Political Science and Public Administration department.
Email: sinakisacik@csu.edu.tr / sina1979@hotmail.com.
ORCID: 0000-0002-3603-6510.
[3] David C. Wolf (1983), “’To Secure a Convenience’: Britain Recognizes China – 1950“, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 18, No: 2, April 1983, p. 299.
[4] Ibid., p. 300.
[5] Ibid., pp. 302-303.
[6] Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the United Kingdom (2003), “Backgrounder: Sino-British Relations“, Date of Accession: 21.09.2021 from http://www.chinese-embassy.org.uk/eng/wjzc/zygx/t27071.htm.
[7] After Addis, British ambassadors to Beijing are: Edward Youde (1974-1978), Percy Cradock (1978-1984), Richard Evans (1984-1988), Alan Donald (1988-1991), Robin McLaren (1991-1994), Leonard Appleyard (1994-1997), Anthony Galsworthy (1997-2002), Christopher Hum (2002-2006), William Ehrman (2006-2010), Sebastian Wood (2010-2015), and Barbara Woodward (2015-).
[8] After Zhiguand, Chinese ambassadors to London are: Ke Hua (1978-1983), Chen Zhaoyuan (1983-1985), Ji Chaozhu (1987-1991), Hu Dingyi (1985-1987), Ma Yuzhen (1991-1995), Jiang Enzhu (1995-1997), Ma Zhengang (1997-2002), Zha Peixin (2002-2006), Fu Ying (2006-2009), Liu Xiaoming (2009-2021), and Zheng Zeguang (2021-).
[9] Jon Agar (2013), “’It’s Spring Time for Science’: Renewing China-UK Scientific Relations in the 1970s“, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 67, No: 1, 20 March 2013, p. 17.
[10] Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the United Kingdom (2003), “Backgrounder: Sino-British Relations“, Date of Accession: 21.09.2021 from http://www.chinese-embassy.org.uk/eng/wjzc/zygx/t27071.htm.
[11] Ozan Örmeci (2020), İngiltere (Birleşik Krallık) Siyaseti, Kitapyurdu version, İstanbul: Urzeni Yayınevi, p. 390.
[12] Qingguo Jia (2008), “Learning to live with the hegemon: China’s policy toward the U.S.A. since the end of the Cold War“, in China-U.S. Relations Transformed: Perspective and strategic interactions (ed. Suisheng Zhao), London: Routledge, p. 46.
[13] AP Archive (2015), “Hong Kong: Handover To China: Chrıs Patten Bids Farewell“, 23.07.20155, Date of Accession: 10.10.2021 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qTEe4rgx6sU.
[14] BBC (1998), “Blair heralds new ‘partnership’ with China“, 06.10.1998, Date of Accession: 10.10.2021 from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/187381.stm.
[15] Ray Barrell & Amanda Choy & Simon Kirby (2006), “Globalisation and UK Trade“, National Institute Economic Review, No: 195 (January 2006), p. 64.
[16] Ozan Örmeci (2020), İngiltere (Birleşik Krallık) Siyaseti, p. 392.
[17] BBC (2013), “David Cameron promises China ‘growth partnership’“, 03.12.2013, Date of Accession: 10.10.2021 from https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-25176613.
[18] Philip Le Corre (2015), “A New Special Relationship: China and the United Kingdom Rekindle Their Ties“, Foreign Affairs, 19.10.2015, Date of Accession: 10.10.2021 from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2015-10-19/new-special-relationship.
[19] Jessica Elgot (2015), “Xi Jinping UK visit roundup: red flags, red carpets and Greene King“, The Guardian, 23.10.2015, Date of Accession: 10.10.2021 from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/23/chinese-president-xi-jinping-uk-visit-roundup.
[20] Oliver Turner (2018), “The Golden Era of UK-China Relations Meets Brexit“, The Diplomat, 18.12.2018, Date of Accession: 10.10.2021 from https://thediplomat.com/2018/12/the-golden-era-of-uk-china-relations-meets-brexit/.
[21] Rebecca Fabrizi (2015), “China and Europe“, in Shared Destiny (eds. Geremie R. Barmé & Linda Jaivin & Jeremy Goldkorn), ANU Press, p. 101.
[22] Gov.uk (2015), “UK-China Joint Statement 2015“, 22.10.2015, Date of Accession: 10.10.2021 from https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-china-joint-statement-2015.
[23] Nicola Slawson (2017), “David Cameron to lead £750m UK-China investment initiative“, The Guardian, 16.12.2017, Date of Accession: 10.10.2021 from https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/dec/16/david-cameron-to-lead-750m-uk-china-investment-initiative.
[24] British Council (2015), “A golden future for China and the UK?“, October 2015, Date of Accession: 10.10.2021 from https://www.britishcouncil.org/research-policy-insight/insight-articles/golden-future-china-uk.
[25] Cary Huang (2018), “A ‘golden era’ in China-UK relations. Really, Auntie May?“, This Week in Asia, 10.02.2018, Date of Accession: 10.10.2021 from https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/opinion/article/2132776/golden-era-china-uk-relations-really-auntie-may.
[26] Gökhan Kurtaran (2015), “İngiltere-Çin ilişkileri ‘altın dönemini’ yaşıyor“, Anadolu Ajansı, 20.10.2015, Date of Accession: 10.10.2021 from https://www.aa.com.tr/tr/dunya/ingiltere-cin-iliskileri-altin-donemini-yasiyor/448519.
[27] Ali Murat Taşkent (2015), “Çin-İngiltere İlişkilerinin ‘Altın Çağı’“, AVİM, Comment No: 2015 / 134, 02.11.2015, Date of Accession: 10.10.2021 from https://avim.org.tr/tr/Yorum/CIN-INGILTERE-ILISKILERININ-ALTIN-CAGI.
[28] Brexit Central (2017), “Theresa May’s Global Britain Speech (17th January 2017)“, Date of Accession: 10.10.2021 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dU0NfH1B-sk.
[29] Kira Godovanyuk (2019), “Contradictions of the “Golden Era“ in UK–China Relations“, RIAC, 19.04.2019, Date of Accession: 10.10.2021 from https://russiancouncil.ru/en/analytics-and-comments/analytics/contradictions-of-the-golden-era-in-uk-china-relations/.
[30] Philip Le Corre (2018), “Brexit: What’s Next for the China-UK Relationship?“, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 19.02.2018, Date of Accession: 10.10.2021 from https://carnegieendowment.org/2018/02/19/brexit-what-s-next-for-china-uk-relationship-pub-75633.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Wilfred M. Chow & Enze Han & Xiaojun Li (2019), “Brexit identities and British public opinion on China“, International Affairs, Vol. 95, No: 6, November 2019, p. 1369.
[33] Gov.uk (2017), “Economic talks herald Golden Era in UK-China relations“, 16.12.2017, Date of Accession: 10.10.2021 from https://www.gov.uk/government/news/economic-talks-herald-golden-era-in-uk-china-relations.
[34] Kira Godovanyuk (2019), “Contradictions of the “Golden Era“ in UK–China Relations“, RIAC, 19.04.2019, Date of Accession: 10.10.2021 from https://russiancouncil.ru/en/analytics-and-comments/analytics/contradictions-of-the-golden-era-in-uk-china-relations/.
[35] Ibid.

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