The UK's approach to China: Towards a balanced approach

The UK’s approach to China: Towards a balanced approach

China’s increasingly dominant international profile has been the focus of much attention in recent decades. Despite this, the UK does not appear to have a coherent and strategic foreign policy approach to China. On the 11th April 2019, the BFPG hosted a round-table to consider the UK’s current approach to China and the direction that this should take.

The speakers were James Rogers, a founding member of the think tank Henry Jackson Society and chair of their Global Britain programme and Andrew MacLeod, an Australian-British businessman and lawyer and current visiting professor at King’s College London. The roundtable was chaired by Theo Clarke, Chief Executive of the Coalition for Global Prosperity. Opening comments from the speakers were on the record whilst subsequent discussion followed the Chatham House Rule.

In his opening remarks, James Rogers argued that the UK should be vigilant and view China as an autocratic power when devising a strategy. In today’s deeply integrated geopolitical system, there is opportunity for shared prosperity and gains. However, unconsidered exposure to autocratic regimes poses a security risk to the UK.

Andrew MacLeod framed his understanding of China’s place in the world in a wider historical context of centuries rather than decades. He argued that China’s power is not ‘rising’ but ‘returning’, as relative Western power and influence declines. China’s recent economic dominance does not represent the rise of one country, but an inevitable change in the global power structure.

The event was attended by a range of representatives from businesses, government, think tanks, development organisations, cultural institutions and media organisations interested in UK-China relations. Following the opening remarks from speakers, attendees were invited to make contributions and ask questions.

The UK's approach to China: Towards a balanced approachA geopolitical threat?

Andrew urged for Europeans to remain reflective of their own histories and honest about their futures. A key debate surrounding China in the UK currently is the role that Chinese tech giant Huawei will play in UK telecommunications infrastructure.  Andrew made a realist argument that while Chinese authorities have the capacity to use Huawei for security gains, this alone should not deter the UK from taking a considered and strategic approach to business with Huawei. He argued that the UK should consider Australia’s experience with Huawei if they want to take a more nuanced approach to China. Australia banned Huawei from its 5G network and from the National Broadband Network,

Andrew also argued that President Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative will have the capacity to substantially diminish UK and European economic importance, and that the UK public and policymakers are not engaging with this sufficiently. Alternatively, James argued that the UK and the West do not fully know the nature of the threat that China poses so should remain cautious. While Global Britain needs to engage internationally, this should not mean putting our principles and security at risk.


Understanding perspectives and measuring values 

A re-emerging theme of the discussion was a failure of UK policymakers to meaningfully understand China culturally and politically. The UK evaluates China using exclusively British measures – such as our legal standards – with little consideration of alternative understandings.

James noted that the UK is unique in global history in the organic development of democracy and the rule of law. He argued that this is precisely why we should measure China against the core beliefs of our system. The opportunities related to China’s economic prowess are no reason to abandon our fundamental principles.

A perspective from attendees that do business in and with China was that the UK could make an effort to better engage with understanding China’s system, without having to abandon commitment to values such as democracy and human rights. There was also agreement amongst the attendees that China could communicate more effectively to try and aid greater international understanding of its aims.


Global Britain: a lack of strategy

At the round-table, it was commented that UK governments of recent decades have sent mixed signals in their approach to China. This critique of UK inconsistency was voiced by British perspectives interested in the Chinese market, as well as those operating in China already. For examples, the previous government under Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne presented the UK as open and welcome to Chinese business, compared to the current administration which appears more focussed on the security risk that China poses.

The speakers and attendees ultimately agreed that UK foreign policy has failed to present a coherent approach to China. Policymakers need to grapple with the valid normative objections to a close relationship with China, such as conflicting values, as well as the implications of not nurturing a close relationship. The speakers and attendees of the roundtable disagreed on what path this relationship should follow; but it was unanimously agreed that the UK government would be wise to decide, and then strategize a clear foreign policy toward China.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the BFPG. The BFPG is an independent not for profit organisation that encourages constructive, informed and considered opinions without taking an institutional position on any issue.
The UK's approach to China: Towards a balanced approach
Sofia Cogliano

Sofia Cogliano is a Researcher at the British Foreign Policy Group. Sofia graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a joint honours degree in International Relations & Law. While at Edinburgh, she was also a BFPG Student Ambassador. She is currently working toward a Masters in Global Political Economy at Stockholm University.