Criticism of British Relations with China Overblown

If the United Kingdom is subordinating its principles to commercial gain, that is hardly unusual.

British prime minister David Cameron walks with Chinese president Xi Jinping outside his Chequers country residence in Buckinghamshire, England, October 22
British prime minister David Cameron walks with Chinese president Xi Jinping outside his Chequers country residence in Buckinghamshire, England, October 22 (The Prime Minister’s Office/Georgina Coupe)

Chinese president Xi Jinping’s state visit to the United Kingdom this week inspired much handwringing about the island nation renouncing its liberal values and alliances, including with the United States, in favor of a closer relationship with the Asian power.

Such fears are overblown.

British prime minister David Cameron himself rejected the criticism on Wednesday.

“I totally reject the idea you either have a conversation about human rights and steel or you have a strong relationship with China,” he said during a joint news conference with Xi where both leaders only took a single question each.

“You can have both. Indeed, you must have both,” he insisted.

Xi, for his part, declared the start of a “global comprehensive strategic partnership” with the United Kingdom that includes £6 billion of Chinese investment in a new British nuclear power plant.

The visit was mostly an opportunity for Xi to advertise China’s growing clout in the world. State media back home relished the show Britain put up.

“The national humiliation that China suffered in modern times began with the rumble of cannon from British warships,” the Communist Party’s official mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, wrote in a front-page editorial, referring to the nineteenth-century Opium Wars that, in the Chinese imagination, were the start of an exceptional chapter in China’s history when others lorded over it.

“But times have changed,” said the newspaper. “China does not bully those past aggressors with its strength.”

Rather it bullies its smaller neighbors, especially those around the South China Sea where China flexes its muscles to advance its revisionist maritime border claims.

The United States, “pivoting” to Asia to counterbalance China’s aggression, hence worry about Britain’s cozying up with the nominally communist great power.

When, in March, Britain announced it would join China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank — a competitor to the American-led World Bank — an official in Washington DC chided it for “constant accommodation” of Beijing.

Given Cameron’s public silence on thorny issues, including Chinese abuses of human rights, “his talk of a ‘golden age’ suggests he is subordinating his principles to the lure of China’s gold,” writes The Economist.

Philip Stephens argued in the Financial Times last month that Britain seems to believe a healthy commercial relationship with China demands a submissive stance on everything else, from human rights to territorial disputes.

Those who know China well say there is no evidence anyway that kowtowing, as such self-abasement used to be called, wins favorable treatment. To the contrary, Beijing tends to disdain those it perceives to be supplicants.

Andrew Small makes the same argument at World Politics Review and adds that Britain’s policy could complicate the West’s as a whole.

It puts pressure on other countries to lower the bar in their own dealings with Beijing. It encourages the Chinese government in the view that “values” will be forgotten if the price is right.

The criticisms are not without merit but miss an important point: berating China for its offenses would leave Britain neither richer nor safer.

Cameron is clearly not going to sacrifice what is in the British interest for the sake of Chinese rights or territorial disputes half a world away that do not affect his country.

As for the Americans, if they believe Britain’s policy is in any way undermining their own they ought to have more faith in themselves. The deployment of American warships is not going to make any less of a mockery of Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea when an American ally is taking their money.

Nor is the relationship as imbalanced as Cameron’s critics suggest.

While taking the prime minister to task for supposedly abandoning his principles, The Economist also points out that China has world’s largest foreign exchanges and is eager for investment opportunities. “Britain has them aplenty, whether in financial services or in building infrastructure.” It is already Europe’s top destination for Chinese foreign direct investment.

Trading with China is doubly beneficial, according to the liberal newspaper — “both for the British economy and by binding China into the Western system of international rules.”

The real problem, as the Financial Times has argued, is the lack of reciprocity in London’s relationship with Beijing.

Britain seems prepared to throw open its doors to any Chinese company for investment in almost any sector. China, by contrast, maintains a strict code that closes off many industrial sectors to foreign investors and imposes limits on ownership in many more.

But surely the best way to make China open up its economy more is to accelerate its integration with the world’s — as Britain is doing — rather than for any Western nation to shoot itself in the foot and forego business opportunities because China doesn’t treat its own people well.

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