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China in the UK’s Foreign Policy

Shifting to Progressive Liberal Internationalism

In: European Journal of East Asian Studies
Authors:
Vahid Nick Pay University of Oxford Diplomatic Studies Programme UK Oxford

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https://orcid.org/0000-0002-7162-6065
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Piotr Buszta
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Abstract

In the post-Brexit environment, at a time when the United Kingdom is looking to redefine its international positioning under the ‘Global Britain’ policy, one of the most urgent priorities for London proves to be to restructure its relations with key global players like China. The objective of this study is to examine factors influencing the development of London’s policy towards Beijing in the period 2015–2022 and to verify whether the growing salience of a progressive liberal posture in the UK’s foreign policy vis-à-vis China could account for the deterioration of bilateral relations that has been experienced. The research attempts to investigate whether the UK’s initial modus vivendi liberal economic engagement with China gave way to a renewed emphasis on progressive liberal internationalist convictions manifested by the UK’s firm stance on Chinese investments in British critical infrastructure and by an amplified criticism of China’s repressive domestic record and aggressive global posture.

Abstract

In the post-Brexit environment, at a time when the United Kingdom is looking to redefine its international positioning under the ‘Global Britain’ policy, one of the most urgent priorities for London proves to be to restructure its relations with key global players like China. The objective of this study is to examine factors influencing the development of London’s policy towards Beijing in the period 2015–2022 and to verify whether the growing salience of a progressive liberal posture in the UK’s foreign policy vis-à-vis China could account for the deterioration of bilateral relations that has been experienced. The research attempts to investigate whether the UK’s initial modus vivendi liberal economic engagement with China gave way to a renewed emphasis on progressive liberal internationalist convictions manifested by the UK’s firm stance on Chinese investments in British critical infrastructure and by an amplified criticism of China’s repressive domestic record and aggressive global posture.

1 Introduction

A state’s foreign policy, defined as ‘the strategy or approach chosen by the national government to achieve its goals in its relations with external entities’ (Hudson 2016, 13) is a complex and dynamic process influenced and moulded by a wide range of actors and structures. At the time when the UK is redefining its foreign policy within the ‘Global Britain’ framework, one of the most urgent priorities for London appears to be to beneficially frame the scope of its engagement with key global players such as China. On the other hand, China’s global ambitions and rapidly growing political and economic clout carry far-reaching implications for liberal internationalist players including the UK. The comprehensive Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), with its land, maritime and digital components, constitutes a powerful strategic tool for Beijing to unleash an all-out systemic shift that directly challenges the West’s economic and military hegemony (Cheney 2019). The intensifying rivalry between Beijing and Washington for primacy in the political, military, economic and technological domains carries serious security and economic repercussions for the UK, as one of America’s closest allies, with fundamental implications for Britain’s policy orientations vis-à-vis China (Lunn and Curtis 2020). This is more so in an era where a significant entrenchment of value-based formulation and implementation of foreign policy seems to be in order in the face of increasingly more confident ‘development first’ value-neutral recipes of progress promoted by China against the hitherto Western patterns of development envisaging democracy and human rights as a precondition to sustainable socio-economic development (Ehteshami 2022).

To be sure, liberalism has never been a monolithic ideological school throughout history. As some scholars have noted, progressive liberalism itself has shown to manifest three main tendencies in its international orientations (Wertheim 2022). First, progressive internationalism has been identified with a value-based pursuit of foreign policy the objective of which has been to promote policies that accord a prominent space to the promotion of human rights and democracy. A second strand, characterised by a more pronounced penchant for global governance, aims to promote international institutions and organisations which might at times prove to be at odds with the state’s direct endorsement of values internationally. This leaves us with a final positioning within progressive liberalism that has highlighted the plurality and fluidity of societal values and even a certain form of relativism requiring restraint and humility by Western nations towards other international actors. This study aims at highlighting the UK’s foreign policy reorientation towards a more progressive internationalism positioning vis-à-vis China.

Another point to bear in mind is that it has proven to be extremely difficult to discern the clear implications of such a significant conceptual shift in the UK’s foreign policy towards China with precise correlations of economic figures and numbers. Nevertheless, in addition to the objective political and economic decisions scrutinised in this study, the significant change in ideological repositioning and the relevant narratives and official rhetoric proves to be of fundamental interest to examine as the important drivers of foreign policy construction in long run.

While there are claims that Britain’s political influence and strategic importance, especially post-Brexit, are on the wane (Menon 2015), the UK, by drawing upon its considerable economic, political and military resources, is likely to remain a prominent second-tier global power engaged in promoting liberal values internationally. The British Government’s policy paper entitled Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of the UK’s Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy (hereafter referred to as the Integrated Review 2021), outlines London’s international strategy up to the year 2030. Given its deep-seated predispositions to promote rules-based global order, economic interdependence and progressive liberal values, the UK plays a prominent normative role in strengthening the liberal front in the ongoing economic and ideological contest with China. From China’s perspective, the UK could be perceived as an important trade and investment partner, as well as a provider of financial and educational services (Brown 2019). As a steadfast ally of the US and a member of NATO and the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, the UK seems to be a tempting target and a testing ground for China’s influence and reach. As noted by some scholars, the UK-China relationship after Brexit will be a litmus test revealing what sacrifices, in terms of political and security concessions, an established Western democracy needs to make in order to engage in and benefit from closer relations with China (ibid).

Over the past decade, one can observe the inconsistencies of the UK’s China policy (Harris 2017) primarily dictated by the laissez-faire imperatives of economic interests. It could be argued that two critical junctures in contemporary Anglo-Chinese relations have been the state visit of President Xi Jinping to the UK in 2015 and the British government’s decision to bar Chinese national brand Huawei from entering Britain’s 5G infrastructure. This first event signalled the launch of the so-called Golden Era in bilateral relations, and the second one a watershed moment marking the onset of a substantial deterioration of mutual relations. The UK’s tough stance on the human rights situation in Xinjiang province and the political situation in Hong Kong acted as the coup de grâce for this already strained relationship.

Scholars of contemporary Anglo-Chinese relations appear to have been primarily interested in the UK’s foreign policy artefacts towards China rather than the actual drivers of policy formulations and their underlying theoretical foundations. This study aims to analyse internal and external determinants of Britain’s policy towards China and their theoretical foundations by answering the following questions: which factors conditioned Britain’s China policy in the period starting from the launch of the Golden Era until Boris Johnson’s departure from office in September 2022? Why did London decide to substantially revise its approach towards China? And what is the theoretical significance of this shift in policy posture? It will be argued that a combination of external drivers connected with security concerns, particularly the premium attached to the so-called ‘Special Relationship’ with the USA and internal factors centred around competing systems of value underpinned such a radical change in foreign policy orientations regarding China. Moreover, on a more theoretical level, this study argues that the revision of Britain’s policy signifies a conceptual transition from its traditional modus vivendi of interest-based liberal positioning to a more progressive approach characterised by a strong and affirmative resurgence of value-based understanding of development.

On a side note, it has to be highlighted that such a significant transition in the UK’s foreign policy could not be adequately explained in the framework of liberal democracies’ presumed realist approach towards non-democracies (Mearsheimer 2018, 188–216). Such structural interpretations of rational calculations of interest, which have presumably constrained the UK’s foreign policy towards China, fail to adequately capture the UK government’s recent assertive interventions at domestic levels in devising economic policies with clear internationalist rhetoric and value-based signalling.

It is worth noting that such trends in the UK’s foreign policy could also be observed in the country’s stand vis-à-vis other major international actors, notably Russia, in particular following Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine which could, in turn, provide this study with important external validity with interesting predictive potentials in the framework of similar comparative studies.

2 The Golden Era in British-Chinese Relations

From the end of 2003 to October 2015, the ‘UK-China relations appear to have gone from deep freeze to an era labelled “golden” ’ (Brown 2016, 44). China’s rise to prominence in Britain’s foreign policy agenda, as a valuable trade and investment partner, coincides with the Conservative Party’s ascension to power in 2010 (Brown 2018). Indeed in the first half of the 2010s decade, China figured highly in Britain’s domestic political debates and macro-economic policies, particularly against the backdrop of Britain’s recovery from the 2007/2008 financial crisis (Harris 2017). One of the key reasons for this was China’s resilience during the global economic downturn and its rise to international prominence as a financial powerhouse and a major source of outward investments (Breslin 2017).

Between 2010 and 2016, both the Conservative and Labour Party, who sought to “redefine the political landscape”, appear to have instrumentalised relations with China to their political objectives (Breslin 2017, 250). Given the large debt and budget deficit inherited from the former Labour government, the inward flow of foreign direct investments from China allowed the Conservative Party to pursue its austerity agenda and fiscal restraint deemed necessary to balance public finances (ibid). In this light, Prime Minister Cameron’s government seem to have been particularly keen on engaging in close interactions with China in order to neutralise certain setbacks such as the one resulting from his and then Deputy Prime Minister Clegg’s meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2012 which put the UK-China political relations into a deep 18-month-freeze (Brown 2018). Hence, in the lead-up to the Golden Era, the UK appears to have eschewed taking a principled stance on democracy and human rights by prioritising its traditional objectives of promoting free trade and economic interdependence. All this could to a large extent be framed with the liberal modus vivendi internationalism prevalent in that era.

Within the UK government, the principal advocate of this strategy appears to have been the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, which highlights the salience of an economic foreign policy and the agent-driven character of the UK’s approach towards China (Brown 2018, Brown 2016, Brown 2019). It is worth mentioning that before his controversial official visit to Xinjiang province in September 2015, Chancellor Osborne co-authored an opinion piece in The Guardian in which he stressed the UK’s desire to deepen bilateral relations with China (Breslin 2017):

We want a golden relationship with China that will help foster a golden decade for this country. It is an opportunity that the UK can’t afford to miss. Simply put, we want to make the UK China’s best partner in the west.

Osborne and O’Neill 2015

The transformative character of the UK’s China policy at that time was conditioned by a range of internal and external factors including the UK’s willingness to free itself from the burden of its colonial legacy (Brown 2016, 44). Furthermore, London was determined to conduct ‘a highly pragmatic, mercantilist and self-centred policy on China, pursued even at the risk of antagonising the US and EU allies’ (ibid). In this light, also guided by the principles of the Macmillan Doctrine, Prime Minister Cameron and Chancellor Osborne sought to guide China into the club of great powers in order to foster international stability and cooperation (Harris 2017). Consequently, at the end of 2015, the UK was one of the most proactive developed countries displaying a true commitment to forging closer relations with China (Brown 2016). Against this backdrop, a series of high-profile political actions and strategies could be identified which further prepared the grounds for bilateral relations. These included the UK’s unilateral decision as the first G7 member to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the decision to adopt a rather muted approach to China’s aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea, and government officials refraining from holding further meetings with the Dalai Lama (Brown 2018).

The visit of President Xi Jinping to the UK in October 2015, the first state visit of this scale in a decade, was undoubtedly a significant milestone in bilateral relations (ibid). The visit was meant to inject new impetus into practical cooperation in three key areas: investment cooperation; people-to-people contacts; and financial collaboration, especially in terms of the internationalisation of the Chinese currency (Brown 2016). In principle, Britain’s engagement with China was to be streamlined and bilateral relations were to primarily focus on investment and trade (ibid). Contentious issues such as human rights concerns and Hong Kong were to be sidelined in the bilateral encounters (Brown 2016, Breslin 2017).

One of the most important outcomes of President Xi’s visit was the Joint Statement, whereby both parties committed to ‘building a global comprehensive strategic partnership for the 21st Century’ confirming the launch of ‘a golden era in UK-China relations featuring enduring, inclusive and win-win cooperation’ (Foreign and Commonwealth Office 2015). The document stressed the strategic importance of UK-China cooperation for global peace, stability and prosperity, as well as the need for both countries to enhance bilateral trade, investments, and collaboration on innovation (ibid). The desire of both countries to augment mutual trust seems to have been confirmed by the decision to establish a high-level security dialogue to discuss matters of mutual concern, including non-proliferation, organised crime, cyber-crime, and illegal immigration (ibid). Finally, the UK’s receptive attitude to China’s investments in British infrastructure was endorsed by the UK-China Statement of Cooperation in the Field of Civil Nuclear Energy signed during President Xi’s visit (Department of Energy and Climate Change 2015).

The political and economic developments discussed above indeed ushered in a new era in British-Chinese relations. Yet unsurprisingly, this enthusiastic disposition of the UK to engage in closer collaboration with China and the government’s neoliberal approach focussing exclusively on facilitating economic relations not only engendered heated debates in the UK but was also openly criticised by the US, particularly with regard to London’s decision to join the AIIB as a founding member (Dyer and Parker 2015, Brown 2016, Oliver and Williams 2016).

3 Critical Internal and External Drivers of the UK’s China Policy

Existing literature on foreign policy has identified numerous elements that influence the design and implementation of policies at the international level. The agency-structure scholarship regarding the internal and external factors impacting foreign policy behaviour aims at identifying such elements that constrain and influence external relations of states (Bright and Hill 2016). In our case study, certain factors deserve particular attention. These include the role of external shocks (Hermann 1990), which are factors external to artefacts of foreign policy and the ‘windows of opportunity’ that might arise under certain international circumstances (Doeser and Eidenfalk 2013). It seems that one of the first external events which gradually affected bilateral relations and ultimately triggered the change of course in Britain’s approach to China was Beijing’s clampdown on pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong in 2019 (Lunn and Curtis 2020). What is more, the adoption by the Chinese parliament in June 2020 of a new national security law which was set to facilitate the extradition and punishment of protesters in Hong Kong raised concerns in the UK about China’s interference in Hong Kong’s domestic affairs, which was regarded to be in direct contravention of the 1984 British-Chinese Joined Declaration (Tsoi and Wai 2020). Since the UK felt bound by this accord, it opted for offering Hong Kong citizens who held the status of British Nationals (overseas) a special visa scheme that facilitated their settlement in the UK and their application for British citizenship (Home Department 2020). In addition, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced the extension to Hong Kong of the arms embargo imposed on China in 1989 and an indefinite suspension of the extradition treaty with Hong Kong (Raab 2020). Predictably, these measures were strongly criticised by Chinese officials and led to a substantial souring of bilateral relations (Office of the Commissioner 2020a and 2020b, Parton 2021a). Most fundamentally, the British-Chinese tensions over Hong Kong brought to light the fundamental incongruities of the systems of value and governance in China and Britain.

On economic grounds, as highlighted above, thanks to the UK’s initial favourable attitude to Chinese capital and investments, Beijing gained a foothold in Britain’s market, including in such strategic sectors of telecommunications, nuclear energy, and transport infrastructure (Eaton 2021, Lunn and Curtis 2020). While Chinese Foreign Direct Investments (FDI s) were generally welcomed by the British government (Donaldson 2021), the lingering suspicion that the Chinese Communist Party could potentially exert influence on parts of Britain’s critical infrastructure and thus render the UK vulnerable to Beijing’s political interference raised serious concerns among British authorities and experts (Brown 2018, Parton 2019, Rossi and Smith 2020, Gaston and Mitter 2020).

3.1 Huawei and the UK’s 5G Telecommunication Sector

One of the most controversial Chinese investments in the UK has been the involvement of the high-tech company Huawei in the development of the British telecommunication network. In 2012 Huawei announced a long-term £ 1.3bln investment in Britain’s telecommunication sector (ITV 2012). This announcement to invest in the sophisticated 5G telecommunication system provoked heated debates both in the UK and among its intelligence partners from the Five Eyes Alliance. In this light, Huawei’s alleged links to the Chinese Communist Party and the national legislation in China requiring all local companies to cooperate with state authorities on national security matters were highlighted (Parton 2019, Defence Committee 2020a and 2020b). Huawei’s bid to participate in the development of the 5G network proved to be indeed a highly sensitive and politicised matter. On the one hand, despite some opposition within its own ranks and warnings from the US, the British government was willing to allow Huawei to invest in the prospective telecommunication network, given the company’s know-how, the competitive price offered, and the significance of the potential contract for the future of British-Chinese economic and investment perspectives (Chan and Kirka 2020, Pickard et al. 2020). On the other hand, by enhancing technological collaboration with China, the UK risked a serious rift in strategic relations with the USA and the Five Eyes Alliance, particularly as Huawei was already black-listed by the majority of the UK’s intelligence allies (Defence Committee 2020a; Jose 2021).

As an important external factor, President Trump’s administration’s approach to Sino-American relations, which was nearly identically carried over to the following Biden’s administration, deserves special attention. The strategic rivalry between the two superpowers was heightened by an escalating trade war and the so-called ‘Digital Great Game’ in which the US made concerted efforts to limit China’s technological expansion through the ‘Digital Silk Road’ (Strategic Comments 2020, Wnukowski 2020). The UK’s hedging strategy, to keep Chinese investment in its strategic sectors and at the same time to safeguard its fundamental relations with the Western allies, was to attempt to introduce technical and legal safeguards whereby Huawei could be involved in the development of less sensitive parts of the 5G infrastructure (Warman 2020, Raab 2020). Accordingly, the UK government allowed the Chinese company to get involved in the construction of 35 % of the peripheral part of the system (Kelion 2020) and the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre was subordinated to the British National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) in an attempt to placate security concerns by keeping Huawei’s equipment in check (Parton 2019).

Nonetheless, the British government failed to provide the US administration with robust guarantees regarding the security of the telecommunication networks, given the NCSC’s inability to exert thorough protection against all potential malicious cyber activities by the principal operators (Lunn and Curtis 2020). Consequently, the pressure from the US kept mounting, including an explicit threat to cut the UK from intelligence collaboration (Jose 2021, Defence Committee 2020a). The US administration is believed to have exerted pressure on the UK during the phone call between President Trump and Prime Minister Boris Johnson and also during the visit of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the UK in January 2020 (Parker, Warrell, and Fildes 2019). In addition, there was also growing opposition to Huawei’s investment on the part of a few Tory backbenchers representing the China Research Group (Pickard et al. 2020).

The US’s blocking of the sales of semiconductors to Huawei in May 2020 (Shepardson, Freifeld, and Alper 2020) provided the British government with a face-saving window of opportunity to bar Huawei from the British market in July 2020. The government ordered telecom companies to remove all Huawei components already installed in Britain’s network by 2027 (Dowden 2020). In addition, Britain’s revised approach to the security of telecommunications systems was further bolstered through a proposal to create an alternative supply chain of the 5G equipment centred around the D-10 alliance of democracies (Defence Committee 2020a, Gaston 2021).

This development clearly reveals the premium that the UK government was prepared to attach not only to concerns over re-evaluated questions of security and national sovereignty in sectors defined as strategic but most importantly to the salience of values and principles in the formulation and pursuit of foreign policy objectives. While the prominence of security and national interests could well be accounted for in a neorealist framework of analysis, the progressive reiteration of the role that democratic credentials could play in bilateral relations has indeed been an interesting development in the foreign policy of a country that has traditionally promoted the so-called modus vivendi of a laissez-faire approach to global trade and investment. In this light, protecting the strategic relations with other western democracies, in particular the USA, could be highlighted as a prominent external structural factor that constrained and influenced the UK government’s positioning.

3.2 Chinese Investment in the UK’s Nuclear Energy

The second strategic sector targeted by China’s FDI has been that of nuclear energy. The 2015 UK-China Statement of Cooperation in the Field of Civil Nuclear Energy paved the way for China’s investments in British nuclear power infrastructure (Vaughan and Kuo 2018). As a result, the Chinese General Nuclear Power Corporation (CGN) obtained a 33.5 % minority stake in Hinkley Point C, a 66.5 % majority stake in Bradwell B, and a 20 % stake in Sizewell C (Gaston and Mitter 2020).

It is worth reiterating that CGN’s investments in a highly regulated British market were extremely valued by Chinese authorities as means to showcase their technological capabilities and generate future economic opportunities (Ford, Pickard, and Thomas 2020). CGN’s eagerness to develop British nuclear infrastructure is well reflected in the concessions it offered to its British counterparts, including those regarding the operation and control of reactors, which was supposed to assuage security concerns (Ford 2019). As with Huawei and the telecommunication sector, the energy sector with its extremely complex infrastructure and multiple personnel and organisational components and even significant cross-border impacts proved to have many security and political dimensions (Popescu and Simion 2012). Against this backdrop, the involvement of the Chinese company in the British nuclear sector, which was expected to cover 25 % of Britain’s energy needs, predictably engendered serious security concerns in the UK and drew criticism from the US (Rossi and Smith 2020, Ford, Pickard, and Thomas 2020). Questions were raised on the ability of the UK to regulate its strategic energy infrastructure and to safeguard British consumers’ interests (Gaston and Mitter 2020).

Given a growing disillusionment regarding the possibility of building constructive and transparent cooperation with China, the British Government became increasingly wary regarding the CGN’s involvement in future nuclear projects in the UK. It has to be mentioned that CGN has been on the US export blacklist since 2019 (Davis 2022), due to the alleged breaches of intellectual property and industrial theft, to which the UK did not seem to initially accord much significance. Yet starting from 2021 the government has been shown to be considering options to remove the Chinese company from the construction of Sizewell and Bradwell plants and potentially the entire British nuclear sector (Pickard and Thomas 2021). It is interesting to note that such prudence against Chinese companies’ trustworthiness appears to be more rooted in ideological and political concerns than technological and economic considerations, as interestingly all clearances on Generic Design Assessments have been given, declaring such projects ‘safe and suitable for deployment’ (Davis 2022).

3.3 Other Important Factors

Structural changes in the international systems, caused by the evolving balance of power, constitute one of the most important factors conditioning the UK’s approach to China. Both the National Security Strategy 2015 and the Integrated Review 2021 identified key global challenges to the UK’s national interests which constrain London’s international engagement, including its China policy (HM Government 2021). However, whereas the 2015 strategic document provides only veiled references to China as a challenge to the UK, focussing rather on general threats to Britain’s security, the Integrated Review 2021 is more explicit in this regard, highlighting ‘geopolitical and geoeconomic shifts, such as China’s growing international assertiveness’, the increasing significance of the Indo-Pacific to global security and economic development, and the systemic rivalry of states underpinned by their conflicting systems of value (ibid).

Another significant internal driver of policy that seems to have adversely impacted the perception of China in the UK was related to the alleged crimes against humanity perpetrated by Chinese authorities in Xinjiang province (Parton 2021b). The outrage in the UK over China’s oppression of the Uyghur minority hardened the British government’s stand vis-à-vis China both in bilateral encounters and in multilateral fora (Lunn and Curtis 2020). The UK, for instance, urged China to stop the unlawful apprehension of the members of the Uyghur minority during the meeting of the Human Rights Council in Geneva in 2019 (UK Mission 2019). In addition, the issue of human rights abuses in Xinjiang was raised in bilateral talks between British and Chinese senior officials, including the Ministers of Foreign Affairs (Foreign and Commonwealth Office 2020). Finally, in response to continued violations of human rights in Xinjiang, the UK joined the US, the EU and Canada in imposing targeted sanctions against four Chinese government officials and the Public Security Bureau of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office 2021).

As regards other factors which have contributed to the deterioration of bilateral relations between the UK and China, we can highlight a few domestic developments in Britain together with other international factors which facilitated the process. At the domestic level, the change of Prime Minister in 2016, in the wake of the EU membership referendum, led to the departure of Chancellor Osborne, the key advocate of forging closer relations with China (Brown 2019). The absence of one of the main advocates of Britain’s overture to China proved to be an important element in letting the steam off the Golden Era processes (ibid, Gaston and Mitter 2020). Moreover, the growing anti-China sentiments within the Conservative Party’s rank and file were more efficiently formulated and channelled through the establishment in 2020 of the China Research Group, made primarily up of Conservative MP s, whose director was also the chairperson of the Foreign Affairs Committee. The group, whose declared objectives are to scrutinise China’s industrial policy, its technology future, and its foreign policy (China Research Group News 2020), has gone as far as openly calling for sanctions against the Chinese government over its alleged violations of human rights, campaigns of spreading lies and disinformation at international level, and other undemocratic domestic and international practices (Yan 2022). This appears to have swayed Prime Minister Johnson to adopt a tougher stance on China not least in an attempt to keep the unity within the Conservative Party (Jose 2021). Additionally, particularly in the 2020–2021 period, we could observe concerted campaigns by the media, public opinion, scholars and experts denouncing perceived Chinese meddling in the UK’s domestic affairs (Parton 2021, 19). In addition to this, the prolonged UK-EU negotiations on the terms of Brexit, as well as the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, siphoned off a significant amount of the British government’s resources, which proved to be extremely disruptive in its interactions with China.

Moreover, a perceived lack of transparency and cooperation on the part of China concerning the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbated this climate of suspicion and mistrust. In this light, China’s positioning itself as a dominant supplier of medical equipment and protective gear and its criticism against the management of the pandemic by liberal states were perceived as strategies to cover up its responsibilities and opportunistically promote its soft power and influence (Foreign Affairs Committee 2020).

There are strong signs indicating that such a steady worsening of China’s public image has indeed taken place in most developed countries including the UK. The Pew Research polls, for instance, show that China’s image increasingly deteriorated in the 2015–2021 period in the UK (Silver Devlin and Huang 2021). Whereas in 2015 only 37 % of British respondents expressed a negative opinion of China, this percentage increased to 63 % in 2021, when only 27 % of the British people expressed a positive assessment (ibid). As regards bilateral trade, only 15 % of Britons welcomed strong economic relations with China in 2021 (ibid). With regard to bilateral economic and investment cooperation, only 22 % of Britons supported it and as few as 13 % welcomed China’s participation in the construction of Britain’s infrastructure (ibid). The British government’s attitude towards China seems to reflect this popular sentiment, given that in 2015 China was deemed an economic opportunity yet in 2021 it was defined by the UK government as ‘the biggest state-based threat to the UK’s economic security’ (HM Government 2021, 26–62).

Being mindful of such global trends, in an attempt to improve China’s image abroad, the extensive involvement of the Chinese diplomatic missions could be highlighted as being extensively engaged in acts of public diplomacy around the world, including in the UK. The Oxford Internet Institute research (China Research Group 2021) revealed that such activities have been highly vigorous on public and digital diplomacy grounds, especially as regards targeting and influencing the British audience through propaganda messages. Diplomats’ engagements included ‘coordinated inauthentic amplification’ and ‘circular bulk retweeting’ aimed at raising the online visibility and reach of Chinese senior officials (ibid). In addition, a significant increase in the use of fake accounts pretending to be British citizens has been registered in an attempt to shape public opinion and influence UK-China relations (ibid). Moreover, China’s Ambassador to the UK in the 2009–2021 period, Liu Xiaoming, considered to be one of the original ‘Wolf Warriors’ of China, appears to have engaged in aggressive and confrontational rhetoric to defend China’s controversial policies in Hong Kong and Xinjiang (Griffiths 2020). It is worth pointing out that, in the wake of the British government’s decision to ban Huawei from the British market, Ambassador Liu went so far as to voice a veiled threat that the UK would have to ‘bear the consequences’ if it wanted to make China a hostile country (Hughes and Warrell 2020). Yet as shown above all such efforts appear to have been unproductive and even counterproductive in swaying public opinion in countries like the UK. As prominent scholars like Joseph Nye have extensively elaborated, overt and unconcealed involvement by states in promoting soft power could actually backfire leading to a more dismal image of that actor before the targeted audience (Nye 2011).

4 The Revision of the UK’s China Policy

The revision of Britain’s policy towards China and the blueprint of London’s strategy concerning Beijing till 2030 is outlined in the Integrated Review 2021. The British government acknowledged the growing global influence of China and made a commitment to building capabilities to develop understanding and expertise on China to better prepare for the emerging balance of power and the potential challenges it might engender for Britain’s national security, value system, and economic stability (HM Government 2021). As highlighted above, the document depicts China as both a ‘systemic competitor’, whose military modernisation and increasing assertiveness endanger UK’s interests, and ‘the biggest state-based threat to the UK’s economic security’ (HM Government 2021, 26, 29, 62). Hence, it emphasises the need to enhance the protection and resilience of the national critical infrastructure, state institutions, and sensitive technologies. Nevertheless, in light of the growing global economic and military preponderance of China, some room is left for the expected bilateral economic cooperation and multilateral collaboration in tackling certain international challenges (HM Government 2021, 22).

Most notably, in addition to such formal proclamations, the UK also took practical measures aimed at demonstrating its resolve to promote its values and interests vis-à-vis China. Consequently, in May 2021 Britain deployed a Carrier Strike Group on a 28-week-mission to reinforce the freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific, including the contentious South China Sea (Royal Navy 2021). Moreover, the International Relations and Defence Committee of the House of Lords launched an inquiry into the UK’s security and trade relationship with China (UK Parliament 2021). Furthermore, to enhance the security of the critical national infrastructure, the British government was given powers to better scrutinise transactions involving strategic assets through the National Security and Investment Act 2021 (HM Government 2021).

As the host of the G7 Summit in Cornwall in June 2021, the UK also contributed to the final communiqué which, inter alia, called on China to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms in Xinjiang and Hong Kong (G7 Summit 2021). In addition, the G7 underscored the significance of protecting a free and open Indo-Pacific region and put forward the ‘Build Back Better World’ initiative as an alternative to the Chinese BRI (Gaston, Aspinall, and Koumoundouros 2021).

It is worth highlighting that as a founding member of many global and regional organisations and institutions, including the UN, the World Bank, the IMF, the WTO, NATO, the Council of Europe, OSCE, G7, and G20, the UK can mobilise a significant number of multilateral institutions to defend and promote its national interests including in its dealings with China. Of particular importance is Britain’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council, which places London in the elite group of states wielding veto power. In this context, it is worth noting that the UK’s approach to this prerogative, as well as to the promotion of transparency and accountability within the Security Council, differs quite markedly from China’s position, which has been resisting such trends in the Security Council (Nick Pay and Postolski 2021).

Finally, as a strong external determinant, the prospect of undermining the ‘Special Relationship’ with the USA and the intelligence collaboration with the Five Eyes Alliance underpinned a fundamental appreciation of the risks stemming from the excessively accommodating approach to Chinese investments in the critical national infrastructure. Overall, one may argue that Britain’s prior liberal internationalist approach driven primarily by economic interests gave way to a more progressive posture underpinned by the centrality of values. Moreover, a clearly discernible neorealist narrative highlighting the primacy of national security seems to have been systematically accompanied by a new emphasis on progressive liberal values of human rights, democracy and transparency rather than the initial largely value-neutral objectives of economic benefits. In this pursuit, some of the UK government’s concrete actions could be highlighted, including the deployment of its Carrier Strike Group to the Indo-Pacific on a freedom of navigation mission, imposing sanctions on Chinese officials involved in human rights violations in Xinjiang, granting a special visa scheme to the inhabitants of Hong Kong, introducing the National Security and Investment Act, and reinvigorating G7 collaboration on a democratic agenda by inviting Australia, India and the Republic of South Korea to participate (Shrimsley 2021).

In September 2021, the UK went as far as to sign a security pact with Australia and the USA (AUKUS) to develop nuclear-powered submarines in an effort to counter China’s maritime ambitions, in particular in the South China Sea (Niquet and Peron-Doise 2021). The symbolic significance of this foreign policy measure for the UK appears to have been to the point that it even risked souring relations with one of its most important geopolitical and economic partners, France, and possibly the whole European Union, which was not even consulted, despite the fact that this new security pact entailed Australia’s abrogation of its agreement with France with regard to a comparable strategic collaboration (Shepherd 2021).

All considered, it becomes clear that the UK has made a sharp turn in its interactions with China since the launch of the Golden Era. It can be observed that the UK’s original leader-driven China policy gave way to a reactive multi-layered approach conditioned by domestic actors, external shocks, windows of opportunity, and a progressive formulation of policy at the international level. Accordingly, on the spectrum of the scale and extent to which the policy was changed, it can be argued that the UK opted for a significant policy revision in its dealings with China, moving away from a hitherto modus vivendi of a liberal posture primarily driven by economic interests towards a more reactive posture guided primarily by the substantive imperatives of progressive international liberalism.

5 Conclusion

As shown throughout this study, a combination of external and internal determinants contributed to a conceptual reorientation of Britain’s China policy in the 2015–2022 period. China’s policy in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, for example, forcefully brought to the fore the incongruity of the Chinese authoritarian practices with liberal democratic values of human rights and international law which are claimed to underpin the Western plans for development. Given that London projected its international role under the Global Britain policy as a force for good, supporting open societies and championing human rights, it seems to have had little choice but to take a principled stance against China in order to maintain an aura of ideological credibility and political integrity.

In addition, several other factors highlighted above, including China’s alleged mishandling of the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, significantly tarnished the image of China in the UK. Its foreign policy was portrayed as geared towards spreading misinformation in order to deflect the blame, and its declared leading role in the global supply chain was perceived as a deceptive means to reap soft power benefits. This in turn heightened apprehension of the risks connected with dependence on Beijing as a supplier of strategic goods (Rolland 2020, The Economist Intelligence Unit 2021, des Garets Geddes 2020). All this, combined with the signalled risks of undermining the strategic relations with the US, convinced the British authorities to reposition their outlook on economic relations with China despite their undeniable lucrative economic advantages and even safety guarantees provided by the UK authorities themselves. Consequently, the outcome has been a trend towards excluding or at least limiting the Chinese presence in Britain’s critical infrastructures of telecommunication and energy in particular. Furthermore, a more assertive security positioning of the UK can be perceived both in formal declarations and also in pursuing alliances and strategies that are clearly devised to counter China’s increasingly aggressive actions on the global stage.

At a more abstract theoretical level, it can be claimed that, at the onset of the Golden Era when developing trade and investment cooperation was the overriding priority, the UK’s China policy appeared to have been consistent with the country’s rooted modus vivendi liberal tradition. Over time, against the backdrop of a growing number of internal factors, external shocks in the international system, including China’s more assertive international behaviour, Brexit, the increasing pressure from Western partners over strategic economic engagements, and the overwhelming consequences of the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK’s policy seems to have gone through a more reflexive phase characterised by a conspicuous amount of progressive rhetoric and value-laden political narratives.

Accordingly, such a dramatic change in the UK’s foreign policy posture towards China could well be attributed to the systemic feedback that the UK received to its hitherto laissez-faire approach toward economic interactions with China. In this light, it could be claimed that this study has also highlighted the growing significance of non-substantive drivers of foreign policy design and implementation that go beyond mere material calculations of benefits which were indeed manifest in all those economic opportunities. In particular, the evolving and mutating image of the other (Frederking 2003) in such international encounters proves to include constructed elements of ideational politics in reaction not only to positivist calculations of material interest but most importantly to the interpretation of the ‘brute facts’ of the international behaviours of states.

Given a significant systemic shift in international politics that accompanies an ever more assertive foreign policy by China, such a conceptual transition towards a more progressive value-based and principled foreign policy by the UK and other Western actors could be expected to harden and even amplify in the years to come vis-à-vis China and other rising global players eager to embrace the Chinese advocated formula for progress without democracy with far-reaching systemic implications for all actors and structures of international politics.

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