With John­son at helm, will China-uk ties turn?

Global Times US Edition - - FORUM - By Song Xin The au­thor is former Eu-china pol­icy ad­vi­sor at the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment. opin­[email protected]­al­times. com.cn

Fi­nally, the United King­dom has a new prime min­is­ter – Boris John­son. Just as it is with his pre­de­ces­sor Theresa May, the most ur­gent task await­ing John­son is to com­plete Brexit, re­gard­less of whether it’s a no-deal or rene­go­ti­ated. Mean­while, Brexit is not only about pulling the UK out of the Euro­pean Union (EU) but also about manag­ing the con­se­quences to min­i­mize dam­age.

The UK is in des­per­ate need of new trade deals with other coun­tries. China, with its eco­nomic power and mar­ket, is not a part­ner the UK should and can af­ford to ig­nore. How­ever, de­spite its ver­bal prom­ises, it has be­come harder to sense a will­ing­ness from the UK gov­ern­ment to re­in­force Uk-china re­la­tions now, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing the UK gov­ern­ment’s re­cent ac­tions over its re­luc­tance to use Chinese 5G tech­nol­ogy and its re­marks on Hong Kong.

This raises the fol­low­ing ques­tion: Has the China-uk golden era, launched in 2015, al­ready ended?

Against the back­drop of glob­al­iza­tion, the UK and China have be­come mu­tu­ally vi­tal to each other. Eco­nom­i­cally, the UK is one of China’s best part­ners in Europe. On the one hand, it is China’s sec­ond-largest Euro­pean trad­ing part­ner. And on the other, the UK is the

EU’S top re­cip­i­ent for Chinese for­eign di­rect in­vest­ment (FDI), which in­cludes stakes in in­fra­struc­ture, ma­jor com­pa­nies, and foot­ball clubs.

Over 155,000 Chinese stu­dents study in the UK. “They make a mas­sive con­tri­bu­tion to Bri­tain and to our so­ci­ety. [There are] more Chinese stu­dents in Lon­don than any city in the world out­side China,” said John­son in an interview with Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV.

Ow­ing to the re­con­fig­u­ra­tion of the world sys­tem, in­clud­ing un­pre­dictable trade con­flict be­tween great pow­ers and re­gional chaos, China is re­shap­ing its strate­gies with the Western world. In the post-brexit era, the UK could pos­si­bly lose its ear­lier at­trac­tion to China. Its com­pet­i­tive advantages, com­pared with other Euro­pean coun­tries, have de­creased. After Bri­tain is out­side the EU, coun­tries like Ger­many, France, and the Nether­lands, will com­pete harder to re­place UK’S privileged role as “China’s best part­ner in the West,” as former chan­cel­lor Ge­orge Os­borne put it.

Be­fore em­bark­ing on the next phase of the Uk-china re­la­tion­ship, Bri­tain’s lead­er­ship should be aware that the game is no longer played to their ad­van­tage. If they cannot tackle the chal­lenges they face, a deeper cri­sis in the near fu­ture is pos­si­ble.

What should be done to strengthen and fur­ther de­velop bi­lat­eral ties be­tween the UK and China?

First, the UK needs to re­act fast. It fits in with China’s agenda to strengthen strate­gic re­la­tions with the UK. But this win­dow of op­por­tu­nity will not always re­main open or un­til the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment re­al­izes its ur­gency. The UK faces se­ri­ous com­pe­ti­tion from its Euro­pean neigh­bors, which are keen on ac­quir­ing more trade deals with China.

Sec­ond, the UK should be warned against a diplo­matic ap­proach with Bri­tish char­ac­ter­is­tics – a pro­cliv­ity to smile at you and stab you in the back.

When it comes to Huawei, China is willing to deal with an open-minded Bri­tish lead­er­ship, but not with one whose prom­ises and be­hav­ior are un­clear.

Fi­nally, even though John­son is willing to at­tach more im­por­tance to US-UK re­la­tions, the UK may not gain much through Wash­ing­ton’s influence. Global pow­ers, like China, would build a re­silient re­la­tion­ship with an in­de­pen­dent part­ner who defends its own in­ter­ests than a “yes-man” nation which takes or­ders from some­one else. There hardly re­mains a chance the UK could please US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion with­out harm­ing bi­lat­eral re­la­tions with China. As the say­ing goes, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

The clock is tick­ing. Time is short be­fore Oc­to­ber 31, the new Brexit dead­line. The new UK lead­er­ship needs to demon­strate its ded­i­ca­tion and com­mit­ment to strength­en­ing the Uk-china part­ner­ship sooner rather than later. It is also ex­pected that the Chinese side will see a more re­li­able UK, which be­haves in the spirit of prag­ma­tism. It is only this way that bi­lat­eral re­la­tions could be­come more ben­e­fi­cial and see the golden era once again.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Liu RUI/GT

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