Home OPINIONS On China relations, the United Kingdom should keep the promise

On China relations, the United Kingdom should keep the promise

By any stretch of the imagination, it is now clear that the West in general had grossly underestimated China’s social and economic potential. Due to the ravages of both internal and external strife, in which the West played a significant role, the Global North had written off the second largest economy in the world as a socioeconomic backwater.

Therefore, it is understandable that the UK would feel slighted by the transformation China has undergone in record time, compared to the period it took many developed countries to achieve a similar feat. But unlike the United States (U.S.) which has come out openly about its misgivings and fears, the UK has remained stoical, a temperament characteristic of the British.

Channel 1

Well, until recently. The UK has vented with the July release of the Eighth Report of Session 2022-23 by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, titled, “Tilting Horizons: The Integrated Review and the Indo-Pacific”. The 85-page report is a lamentation of how the UK has been caught napping as the rest of the world, in this case, the Indo-Pacific, has moved a little bit too fast for its comfort.

The report has tried to reinvent today’s geopolitics without success. It looks at the world from an earlier world order where the UK called the shots as the biggest colonizer. The UK has just betrayed the baggage it has dragged all along in silence. Shockingly, it refers to Taiwan as an independent country, something it has never done before in an official document or pronouncement. It shows the high level of provocation the report aimed to achieve.

Indeed, a lot of the report on China has been inspired by the U.S.’s position. The admission that the UK does not have a unified approach to the so-called China threat means that this threat is a figment of the author’s imagination. The U.S. seems behind this new agenda, at least going by the report’s belligerent tone and unsubstantiated allegations. The superpower is loath to have any kind of rapprochement between its avowed adversary and its close allies.

Experts also see the report as a well-orchestrated curtain-raiser preceding the first visit of a UK foreign secretary to China in the last five years. Still, the reality remains that decoupling from China is a bad idea for anyone. In his visit to Beijing on 30 August, UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly was categorical that disengaging from China was not credible, adding that it would help to avoid “mistrust and errors”. The two countries long-standing relations cannot be wished away simply because of unfounded insecurities, forced accusations, unilateralism, and prejudice.

China is the UK’s fourth largest trading partner. According to data published by the Department for Business and Trade in June 2023, China was the UK’s fourth largest trading partner in the four quarters to the end of Q4 2022, accounting for 6.5 percent of total UK trade. Data from UK’s Office for National Statistics shows that in 2021, the UK imported £63.6 billion of goods from China, which accounted for 13.3 percent of all goods imports and making China UK’s largest importing partner. The UK exported £18.8 billion of goods to China, accounting for 5.8 percent of all goods exports, and making China the sixth-largest exporting partner. Moreover, both countries have invested heavily within each other’s borders.

The smooth change of government in Hong Kong between China and the United Kingdom in July 1997 opened a new chapter in Sino-British relations based on mutual respect and non-interference in the internal affairs of each other. The two countries agreed to strengthen political and military consultations, continue dialogue on human rights based on equality and mutual respect, and expand their trade and economic cooperation, particularly cooperation on financial system reform and state-owned enterprise transformation, social security, environmental protection and poverty reduction.

As permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, both share wide-ranging interests and responsibilities in international affairs. The UK expressed its support for China’s accession to the World Trade Organisation. In order to increase mutual understanding between the two countries and promote exchanges between the two countries in parliamentary, academic, educational, cultural, sports and other fields, they decided to set up the China-UK Forum, the highest non-governmental dialogue mechanism between the two countries.

Both sides have on occasion reaffirmed their determination to increase consultation and cooperation on regional and international issues, bilaterally or multilaterally, in order to contribute to world peace and security. Cleverly’s conciliatory tone in Beijing appears to mean that the UK does not want to lose its closeness to China, something that the UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has indicated by saying that it is important to keep the lines of communication open.

However, the UK must stop its newfound doublespeak in its relations with China. It is a plague that continues to haunt U.S.-China relations where the former says one thing to please the geopolitical gallery, while simultaneously escalating its trade war with attempts at decoupling and isolating China from the global value chains. Experts will be watching the body language between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Sunak if they hold a meeting during the Group of 20 summit in New Delhi on September 9 and 10.

Stephen Ndegwa
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