Cool Heads must Prevail in Resetting UK-China Relations

In one of the most rapid shifts in foreign policy tone and substance in living memory, Westminster has this year undergone a dramatic transformation in its relations with China. The naive language of the doomed ‘Golden Age’ of UK-China relations under Cameron and Osborne has been rightly laughed out of town, yet the hawkish voices now wrestling control of the debate have not yet been able to set out a realistic roadmap through which to engage with this increasingly powerful global actor.

A reset in our relations is well overdue, although we begin at a point of great imbalance, due to the relative deficiency of knowledge held about China within British institutions. Recalibrating our engagement with China is not simply a geopolitical task – it is also about up-skilling our policy-makers, our society, and securing our domestic resilience. This is a generational undertaking, which will require the British state, businesses, universities and Britons themselves gaining a more sophisticated understanding of China’s history, its modern psyche and its intentions.

It is patently clear that China’s economic dominance has not come hand in hand with a desire, nor a need, to embrace democratic principles – indeed, many aspects of its success are derived from its autocratic nature. It is also true that many of the carrots and sticks the West thought it had at its disposal have been shown lacking. Yet, to characterise China as entirely focused on achieving a zero-sum game towards world domination misses something fundamental about its domestic and geopolitical ambitions.

China’s unique brand of mercantilist authoritarianism has brought it riches and influence, and afforded its government a seat at the table of our multilateral institutions. There is no precedent of another non-democratic power in our recent history, so utterly entangled within Western nations, and yet with the economic strength, defence and diplomatic capabilities to truly challenge Western hegemony.

As ever when it comes to China, there is something to be gleaned from the experiences of the Australian Government, which has learned the hard way that it is much more difficult to reel back a deepening relationship, than to never allow it to become so close. China’s escalating incursions into national security and its ham-fisted attempts to meddle in the country’s political life broke the goodwill of public opinion, and forced politicians to act. With the drawbridge closing, Australia will pay a significant price for its pivot away from its largest economic partner.

Despite the pandemic, the allure of China’s economic might remains strong, and its centrality to global economic growth undiminished. It is not inconceivable, however, that an economic relationship can be cultivated that does not come at the expense of our security. With the complacency of the past behind us, we should be thinking creatively and expansively about our ‘critical national infrastructure’, and fighting tooth and nail to defend it. The benefits of trade with China, including cheaper prices and consumer choice, should be matched by investments in local manufacturing and supply chain resilience.

With these domestic guardrails in place, we will be able to act as a more confident, equal partner in our economic relations, and in advocating for the liberal values that are so important to Britain and our allies. The government will also have more credibility in asking the British people to consent to relations with an authoritarian state, whose interests may appear diametrically opposed to our own.

It is not feasible nor constructive for us to categorise China in the same manner we do North Korea or Iran, nations with whom we hold economic sanctions. We urgently need a more constructive, informed and realistic approach to our engagement with China – one that recognises the divergence in our values and intentions, and which frankly assesses and secures the potential vulnerabilities in our domestic systems. Equally, we must give more careful thought to the areas where the UK’s strengths, including the respect with which it is held by China, could cultivate productive partnerships around shared interests.

On issues such as climate change, there are clear advantages in having China – both a leading polluter and innovator – at the table, not least of all because of the strength of its own diplomatic power towards developing nations. And although our capacity to influence China’s domestic policy is limited, we would also be selling ourselves short to claim that we have no capacity to influence its priorities as a global actor.

The government’s commitment to a new approach is evident. Less clear is where the pendulum will fall. Cool heads will allow us to better defend our assets and interests, while allowing the door to important areas of economic and diplomatic engagement to remain open.


Sophia Gaston is the co-author, with Prof. Rana Mitter of Oxford University, of a new British Foreign Policy Group report, ‘After the Golden Age: Resetting UK-China Engagement’.



Sophia Gaston

Sophia is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group.