When the UK announced its U-turn on allowing the Chinese telecoms giant Huawei to play a part in the country’s 5G network, it signaled an end to the so-called “golden era” of UK-China relations. To the delight of US President Donald Trump, the UK would seemingly no longer equivocate on its national security in order to balance its relationship with China – and would instead adopt something closer to a US-style hard line.
Oliver Dowden, the UK’s secretary of state for Culture, Media and Sport, said that the US sanctions imposed on Huawei in May had “significantly changed” the landscape. “Given the uncertainty this creates around Huawei’s supply chain, the UK can no longer be confident it will be able to guarantee the security of future Huawei 5G equipment.”
While the Huawei decision might in practice only be a reversal on one specific issue, it represents a huge symbolic win for British China hawks, who have been uncomfortable with the creep towards greater engagement with Beijing over the past two decades and have recently advocated for a much tougher stance on China, similar to that of the US government.
Unfortunately for those hawks, pivoting hard from China is easier said than done. Since the turn of the millennium, British governments have actively attempted to engage with China on a number of key issues – from climate change to global security – in exchange for a deeper economic partnership, which was especially important to the UK post-financial crash. Consequently, the Chinese state now has deep roots in the UK, and it’s unclear how achievable or even desirable a sudden reversal of this might be for the UK.
Those deep roots include a trading partnership worth nearly $88 billion, direct foreign investment and acquisitions of British companies, $2.14 billion in Chinese students studying in British universities and, of course, controversial Chinese involvement in key British infrastructure projects, including nuclear power stations.
The arguments against dealing with a rising, single-party state like China were previously outweighed by the potential for economic gains. “General economic trade and engagement with China is not and should not be controversial … the more trade we can do and foreign investment we can attract the better,” says former British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind.
However, he added that this cannot come at the cost of national security. “Obviously, we have seen that was too high a risk over Huawei, and I think nuclear power stations is something the government is certainly going to have to look at.”
So, what’s changed? Rifkind believes that previous governments simply couldn’t have predicted what China would become in the years that followed. “They could not have known that under Xi Jinping, China would, actually, get less liberal and more autocratic. He has become much more brutal, provocative and aggressive.”
Raffaello Pantucci, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, agrees that previously China’s worst instincts were to some extent overshadowed by the benefits of engagement.
“China was operating at the time (we thought) under the old Deng Xiaoping maxim of hiding its power and biding its time. Now it is a much bigger and more assertive power on the world stage, so it is a different China we were dealing with.”
While it’s all well and good to suddenly face up to this in 2020, it leaves the UK in a tight spot. Does the Huawei decision mean Chinese firms will be barred from other infrastructure projects? State-owned Chinese companies are currently expected to be involved in the construction of at least three nuclear power stations in southern England. In some cases, these firms are expected to be building the reactors themselves, which is causing concern among members of Boris Johnson’s ruling Conservative party.
“The problem comes when you are dependent on technology that is hard to replace. Hinkley Point and Sizewell are French reactors, Bradwell would be a Chinese reactor,” says Tom Tugendhat, Chairman of the UK’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee. “That makes us dependent – to some extent – on China for maintenance and repair. Given Beijing’s recent threats the possibility of being be switched off remotely or simply not resupplied is of increasing concern. You’re just dealing with a different threat when the Beijing controls the hardware.”
These would be hard decisions for any country, let alone one that’s about to leave the largest single market on earth and trying to reposition itself as an independent economic power.
“Does it mean that the UK, in withdrawing from the European Union maybe without a deal, needs to find opportunities elsewhere? China would have figured in that. Now it probably won’t figure as strongly,” says Kerry Brown, professor of China studies at King’s College London.
Britain’s China headache isn’t helped by the fact the EU is not currently planning any similar bold moves to rein in Chinese power and remains committed to balancing its relationship with China, as Brussels attempts to increase its geopolitical clout.
The question the UK must now ask itself is: what does it want from China? That is in some respects more of a political debate than an economic consideration. “The political question of what China is now – with issues like Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Covid-19 more dominating the debate – has changed the conversation from just being a technical one about Huawei and 5G to something much larger,” says Pantuuci. “Given the size and continued inevitability of China, this seems like an unhealthy place to be.”
Brown believes that there is an assumption in London that this move would be seen as an act of loyalty in Washington DC, and that it will help post-Brexit Britain cement its place in an emerging Anglosphere alliance. However, he adds that this doesn’t come without risk ahead of an expected tumultuous US election ahead. “America is obviously going through huge challenges at the moment politically but also economically. The question is, is Britain backing the right horse?”
Then there’s the issue of Chinese retaliation. Chinese state media and diplomats have already indicated that there will be consequences for the UK; this is alarming given a relationship that is already advanced and on the whole economically good for the UK.
And those retaliations could cost the UK in other areas where it values dialogue with Beijing, from engaging with China on climate change to the strong British interest in Hong Kong to China’s increasingly autocratic approach to human rights.
Which bring us back to the key point: what does the UK want from China? This is a question we can only assume keeps Boris Johnson, a man who has recently described himself as a Sinophile on numerous occasions, up at night.