Britain and China have enjoyed a warm relationship since the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The UK was among the first western countries to recognize the PRC as the government of China in 1950. More recently, under David Cameron’s premiership, there were commitments to a golden relationship between the two powers. In 2015 the UK joined the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), disregarding the rage of the US, and became a founding member. Boris Johnson similarly stated his intention for positive ties with Beijing and expressed an interest in Beijing’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
However, during 2020 the relationship rapidly deteriorated, and in the early months of 2021 things grew worse. This happened due to three main areas of contention:
Firstly, the UK government has accused Chinese authorities of breaching the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, a treaty which guarantees Hong Kong’s autonomy after the handover of the city to Beijing in 1997. For its part, China accuses Britain of meddling in its internal affairs over the city. After Beijing’s implementation of a national security lawin June 2020 in Hong Kong, intended to stop the pro-democratic mass protests, Britain announced the extension of the arms embargo to China and changes to its extradition treaty with Hong Kong. For the same reason, the UK government—through the British National Overseas (BNO) passport reform—offered a potential path to citizenship for more than 3 million Hongkongers starting in 2021. In response, the Chinese government announced it would no longer recognize the passport as a legal travel document, and the Hong Kong governments asked 14 countries not to recognize it. Moreover, when in March 2021 China presented a reform of the Hong Kong electoral system with the aim of ensuring that only “patriots” can govern the city, Dominic Raab, the UK Foreign Secretary, accused Beijing, “[of hollowing] out the space for democratic debate,” in Hong Kong.
Another source of disagreement has been the role of Chinese telecom giant Huawei in Britain’s 5G network. In January 2020, London allowed Huawei to participate in the development of non-core parts of its 5G infrastructure. However, in July the government reversed its position announcing that Huawei equipment would no longer be used and anything that was already installed would be removed by 2027. This review of Huawei's role in the UK's 5G infrastructure has been prompted by security concerns, namely US pressures and sanctions on the firm, which disrupted its supply chains.
Furthermore, Britain has accused China of “egregious” human rights abuses against the Uyghurs, and in March 2021 imposed sanctions on four Chinese officials considered to be involved in the human rights violations in the north-west region of Xinjiang. These sanctions, coordinated with the EU, US, and Canada, induced retaliation from China. Beijing targeted nine UK citizens with sanctions—including five MPs, and four organizations—accusing them of spreading “lies and disinformation” about its treatment of Uyghurs. Notably, one of these organizations is the Conservative Party’s own Human Rights Commission, a core constituent of Johnson’s party. Also, the UK's parliament in late April approved an all-party, non-binding motion stating that China's crackdown against Uyghurs correspondes to crimes against humanity and genocide. Related to the Uyghur row, China has decided to ban BBC World News from airing in the country after its reporting on coronavirus and the persecution of Uyghurs. This move follows British media regulator Ofcom’s decision in early February to revoke the licence to broadcast in the UK the China Global Television Network (CGTN), after determining that it lacks editorial independence.
On top of that, the new UK foreign and defence policy review, released on March 16, cast China as, “the biggest state-based threat to the UK’s economic security.” This outlines an Indo-Pacific tilt with the aim to bolster UK hard power in the region surrounding China, in order to preserve freedom of navigation in an area essential for UK trade with Asia. Though, somewhat contradictorily, the review also states that Britain needs to build “a stronger and positive economic relationship” with China and develop cooperation on common challenges such as climate change.
This shift in the UK’s position is owed to various factors: pressure from the United States, China’s growing assertiveness, and significant pressure from Conservative backbenchers. In fact, a growing number of Conservative MPs want a reset in the UK-China relationship, pushing for Johnson to adopt a tougher stance toward Beijing. Their grievances mainly concern human rights abuses, forced technology transfers and Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. These Tory MPs came together in 2020 forming the China Research Group with the aim to find better ways to respond to China’s rise.
The Prime Minister himself is attempting to adopt a more balanced approach, avoiding a purely anti-China stance while at the same time being robust toward Beijing’s malicious activities. Yet, the fact that Johnson, after China sanctioned UK citizens, spoke of the need to find ways to make developing countries less economically dependent on Beijing’s BRI, reveals the growing pressure upon him to take a harder stance toward the PRC.
The tit-for-tat exchange of sanctions makes clear to the UK government that trying to pursue meaningful economic ties with China while criticizing it on human rights and geopolitical moves is extremely difficult. However, the economic relations between the pair remain of significant importance for the UK, particularly after Brexit and the recession brought about by the pandemic. The critical question for a post-Brexit Britain is to what extent it can balance maintaining economic ties with China whilst protecting its own national security interests and standing up for democratic values around the world.