A UK-China Engagement Strategy

If the Global Britain project presented the impetus and opportunity to develop a comprehensive UK-China Engagement Strategy, the coronavirus pandemic has truly lit a fire under the urgency of such an endeavour. At the British Foreign Policy Group, we are keen to ensure that space is maintained alongside the necessarily consuming focus on the day-to-day responses compelled by the pandemic, to prepare and engage with the shifting global landscape – including important work on defining our strategic objectives and terms of engagement with other nations.

The task of articulating our relationship with China is made more difficult by the hostile nature of public opinion in the UK towards the authoritarian power. Surveys we have been undertaking systematically since November 2019 have shown a steady hardening of opinions over a six-month period. While this trend is replicated in the United States and Australia, both of which also have very active public discussions regarding China’s intentions, it is striking that British attitudes are so uniquely negative.

Unfavourable opinions of China in the UK have hardened by four percentage points during the pandemic – a relatively small increase, largely because they were already so extreme. BFPG’s research finds 83% of Britons now say they do not trust China to act responsibly in the world – meaning China is rapidly closing the gap on negative attitudes towards Iran, at 85%, and North Korea, at 88%. One especially interesting finding from our research this year has been the extent to which these geopolitical and security concerns are now flowing into attitudes towards immigration – meaning China is now one of the nations that Britons are most hostile towards as a source country, and 41% of Britons now advocate for a decline in Chinese migration to the UK.

It is unclear as to why opinions towards China are so especially hostile in the United Kingdom, but in many ways, this reinforces the need for a UK-China Engagement Strategy to be truly comprehensive and nuanced in its scope. While Britons have evidently moved dramatically from simply regarding China as an economic competitor, to classifying China as a malignant state of utterly dubious moral intentions, there is no doubt that we will continue to need to pursue some kind of trading relationship with the second largest economy in the world. Moreover, we will also want and need to open our doors to talented Chinese students and migrants, to welcome tourists from a profitable and growing market, and to maximise the benefits of cultural exchange.

Public consent is becoming an increasingly crucial aspect of our foreign policy activities, and it will also need to be the foundation of our engagement with our allies and authoritarian states. It is untenable for us to pursue economic, social, cultural, political and strategic relationships with China if ordinary Britons continue to regard the nation with such fear and suspicion. The debate around the decision in January this year to allow Chinese technology giant Huawei to build aspects of the UK’s 5G infrastructure appears to have played an important role in deepening anxieties – after all, research from YouGov has shown that when Britons learn that consumer brands are headquartered in China, the appeal of these brands falls significantly.

The rising antipathy towards China captures citizens’ insecurities around their nation’s place in an evolving global landscape. It is Conservative and Republican voters in the United States and the United Kingdom who are most concerned about China and its growing global influence. This likely reflects the fact that these voters are most inclined to subscribe a vision of the liberal world order that continues to hold the United States and the Western alliance as the linchpin at its heart. The salience of the issues around China appears to be somewhat weaker amongst citizens who feel less existentially threatened by the notion of a world with a shifting balance of power. While Russia is still regarded as a pre-eminent threat to both the United Kingdom and the United states, China is also now firmly positioned within an ‘us vs. them’ framework of ‘good’ and ‘evil’.

While it is unclear what direction the UK Government will take on the Huawei decision as a result of China’s behaviour during the pandemic, the need to define and safeguard our critical infrastructure – in a comprehensive, and flexible way – is evidently becoming a greater priority. The Government is moving towards developing a greater degree of medical and biosecurity independence and resilience, weaning our supply chains away from such embedded dependence on Chinese-run companies. A UK-China Engagement Strategy will need to focus on how better to protect and defend the nation’s interests, but also consider how more positive and active forms of mutually beneficial interaction and exchange could also be undertaken.

Brexit compels the United Kingdom to think beyond our region, and to identify new markets and avenues for cooperation across the world. In reality, many of these nations will not share our values, and in 2020, citizens are no longer naïve to the prospect of being able to draw a hard line between economic and security interests. Nor are they blind to the failure of the Western hope that bringing China into the global community would inevitably encourage it to embrace democracy and turn away from its egregious incursions towards human rights. The success of the Brexit project requires all Britons ultimately being securitised in the idea that the world at large is an exciting place full of opportunities, and this message will need to be sufficiently robust as to accommodate more ‘strategic’ forms of engagement with nations like China.

Australia has sought to straddle this careful balance for decades now, and it is important to learn from its experience as a Western liberal democracy – both in the success of the consistency of its strategy, and the rich economic and cultural benefits it has brought, but also in acknowledging the evident missteps in their Government’s approach. There is also an irony underpinning Britain learning from Australia’s experiences with China, because a fundamental driver for Australian engagement with China was the decision of the United Kingdom to join the European Economic Community (and ultimately, the European Union). Our post-Brexit economic strategy is now predicated on striking Free Trade Agreements with countries like Australia, to redress the balance in our trading relationships.

As a young nation striving to exert its own identity and reconcile is status as an Anglosphere power in the Asia-Pacific region, national conversations around Australia’s relationship with China have always been tied to questions of national identity – and national destiny. The emergence of a political discourse around ‘The Asian Century’ afforded a kind of inevitability to China’s rise and dominance, and its centrality to Australia’s future. Ultimately, we can now see with the benefit of hindsight that the China’s increasing degree of connectivity and influence within Australia – a relatively slow process that began to accelerate and intensify around the time of the financial crisis – fostered a degree of economic dependence, which inevitably encouraged politicians to turn a blind eye to some of the more pernicious infringements China was making towards the nation’s security and sovereignty.

The lesson here is of the narrowness of the tightrope a nation can walk in its engagement with an authoritarian state. China’s interests were not confined to the economic sphere, and it sought to exploit vulnerabilities in political will. The sooner the United Kingdom can develop clear boundaries and parameters for its engagement, and shore up industries vulnerable to malign penetration, the better placed it will be to pursue a confident ‘relationship of equals’ with a nation whose economic strengths are built on illiberal foundations. As has been the case in Australia, a UK-China Engagement Strategy will also need to be sensitive to and cater for regional and city-led engagement with China – our National Engagement Programme stakeholder forums in Manchester, for example, revealed how sophisticated many of these localised strategies have become.

Australia is now frantically trying to reel back from some of its entanglement with China, but this is very difficult to achieve without collateral damage. One of the very positive aspects of the Sino-Australian relationship has been the growing appeal and importance of Australia as a destination for higher education, tourism and cultural exchange – profitable economically, but also in terms of Australia’s soft power projection and the enormous contribution of the Chinese diaspora. Australia will have to tread carefully in its ‘strategic withdrawal’ to minimise the disruption to these important industries and sources of social enrichment.

A crucial question around the development of a UK-China Engagement Strategy is the process around the Integrated Review of our Defence, Security, Development and Foreign Policy, which has been postponed during the heart of the pandemic. It is reasonable to assume that the Government will wish to set out the foundations of the Review before commencing work on any country-level strategic thinking; yet, this will need to be weighed up against the urgency of the rapidly evolving dynamics in the world order. After all, decisions such as Huawei were forced upon the UK due to the need for the nation to maintain a world-leading position in the face of technological progress.

Our relationship with China (and the Chinese people) offers many opportunities, but they can only be realised if we effectively prepare and protect ourselves against its challenges. The sooner we can begin this important project, the sooner we will be able to safely realise its benefits.


The British Foreign Policy Group is starting work with Prof. Rana Mitter, the Head of the University of Oxford’s China Centre, to scope the framework of a UK-China Engagement Strategy – including exploring what can be learned from Australia’s experience. Sign up to our newsletter to receive updates on the progress of the Strategy.

Sophia Gaston

Sophia is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group.