Open, fre­quent ex­changes for bet­ter UK ties

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - COMMENT -

As the Bri­tish and Chi­nese gov­ern­ments con­cluded their lat­est strate­gic di­a­logue on Dec 20, with both sides reaf­firm­ing their com­mit­ment to a Sino-Bri­tish “golden era” amid the un­cer­tainty cre­ated by Brexit, the world to­day looks very dif­fer­ent from Oc­to­ber 2015, when Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping paid a high-pro­file state visit to the United King­dom.

The first chal­lenge 2016 brought to UK-China ties is Brexit, which will re­quire the UK to de­velop its China pol­icy without the ben­e­fits of a multi-lay­ered ap­proach where ob­jec­tives were pur­sued both bi­lat­er­ally and with the sup­port of the more in­flu­en­tial Euro­pean Union. The UK will there­fore find it­self on the spot more with re­spect to China, whether on hu­man rights or trade pol­icy. This might also cre­ate op­por­tu­ni­ties for Bei­jing.

Most at­ten­tion has fo­cused on a free trade agree­ment, with busi­ness voices ex­press­ing sup­port for such a move. How­ever, cau­tion is in or­der.

An agree­ment which is good for the UK will in­volve much greater ac­cess to China’s ser­vice sec­tor, but it is not yet clear whether China is pre­pared to grant that. Be­sides, as many have pointed out, de­pend­ing on the con­tent, a UK-China agree­ment could con­strain Lon­don in reach­ing an all-im­por­tant fu­ture trade agree­ment with Brus­sels. Nor is it clear that it would push the EU to­ward its own free trade agree­ment with China, as Bei­jing might hope.

The sec­ond ma­jor fac­tor which will hang over the agenda is un­cer­tainty over the im­pact of a Don­ald Trump pres­i­dency in the United States. Although it is still too early to judge what strate­gic di­rec­tion Trump will take, judg­ing by his crit­i­cal tone on the cam­paign trail, there is a good chance he will take a tougher line on China than his pre­de­ces­sor Barack Obama. We can ex­pect more un­cer­tain times.

This is not good for Euro­peans, who any­way are wary of the next US pres­i­dent. Greater un­cer­tainty and fric­tion in US-China re­la­tions tend to heighten ten­sions in the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion, mak­ing the re­gional pros­per­ity and sta­bil­ity, which con­trib­ute to Europe’s eco­nomic se­cu­rity, more dif­fi­cult to achieve.

The UK, whose new govern­ment has re­it­er­ated its com­mit­ment to pur­su­ing good re­la­tions with China, may find it­self at the sharp end of this, es­pe­cially as it con­cur­rently looks to get the Lon­don-Washington re­la­tion­ship onto an even foot­ing.

The chal­lenges for UK pol­i­cy­mak­ers can be seen in some re­cent mixed mes­sages about its ap­proach to East Asia. The Bri­tish for­eign sec­re­tary said at a re­cent talk at Chatham House that “the emerg­ing bal­ance of power sys­tem in Asia needs the in­flu­ence of friendly coun­tries”, while there has been some lack of clar­ity over re­marks by the UK’s am­bas­sador to the US on the pos­si­bil­ity of the Bri­tish mil­i­tary en­gag­ing in “free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion” op­er­a­tions in the South China Sea, some­thing which would ex­ac­er­bate the se­cu­rity dilemma in the re­gion.

The UK, ide­ally work­ing with the EU de­spite Brexit, should be en­cour­ag­ing a modus vivendi between China and the US in East Asia, on the ba­sis of a bal­anced and im­par­tial ap­proach. Lon­don’s re­sponse to the Asian In­fra­struc­ture In­vest­ment Bank and the Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive (the Silk Road Eco­nomic Belt and 21st Cen­tury Mar­itime Silk Road) set the right tone, de­mon­strat­ing an open­ness to a chang­ing world or­der.

The talk of a Sino-Bri­tish “golden era” apart, the more sig­nif­i­cant achieve­ment of Xi’s state visit to the UK was the es­tab­lish­ment of a com­pre­hen­sive global strate­gic part­ner­ship.

This part­ner­ship should pro­vide the ba­sis for open, hon­est and fre­quent ex­changes of views on the full range of global in­ter­ests. Of course, this does not mean the two gov­ern­ments agree on ev­ery­thing — far from it. But it does pro­vide a plat­form for re­spond­ing to the un­cer­tain­ties fac­ing the world, and for ex­plor­ing re­forms, to en­sure the in­ter­na­tional sys­tem re­flects changes in the global and re­gional dis­tri­bu­tion of power.

The au­thor is a se­nior con­sult­ing fel­low with Chatham House.

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