What HMG’s evolving China position reveals about shifting UK political realities

This article is an abridged version of a speech that Sophia Gaston first gave to the University of Oxford’s China Centre in November 2020.

In examining the evolution of UK Government thinking on China, it’s reasonable to focus on the ‘Golden Age’ of UK-China engagement around 2014-15 as a starting point. Not because the UK Government didn’t engage with China before then, but because this marked the beginning on a debate about China that seeped into the fabric of the UK’s public sphere – reaching a fever pitch at the start of 2020. There is a clear arc from a moment of enthusiasm and optimism to the considerably more cautious approach the Government is pursuing now.

It’s important to remember where we were, economically and geopolitically at that time, as this reveals much about the circumstances that led us here. To highlight two important contextual matters: the first is that the UK was firmly in the austerity era, and although we were on the path to recovery, there was a sense of urgency around finding avenues to prosperity, which would tip the balance in that direction. The public had grown weary of austerity as a doctrine, its consequences for communities were becoming clearer, and much of the enthusiasm for the belt-tightening of 2010 had dissipated.

This backdrop certainly facilitated the notion that pursuing a close and connected economic policy towards China could offer a transformative fiscal reset, and that this in turn would help strengthen the Government’s own social contract with the British people, in restoring economic growth after years of hardship.

The other remarkable aspect about this time, is that Britons were sending out some important signals about the strains underpinning the fundamentals of this social contract – signals which were not necessarily being received and digested. Two seismic votes in 2014 – the Scottish independence referendum and the EU Parliamentary elections – were sending shockwaves through Westminster, but the existential nature of their significance was barely seeping beneath the surface. It says much about the scope of the political Overton window of that time, that this decision to pursue the ‘Golden Age’ with China was made without any foresight to the pivotal role that citizens’ insecurity towards globalisation would play in utterly reinventing political realities in the UK.

At this time, the Cameron Government’s understanding of the political contract was built almost entirely around the paradigm of economic growth. Their efforts to revitalise lagging Northern cities in the Northern Powerhouse were focused on economic renewal as the primary instrument of social renewal –a sense that one would precipitate the other, in an organic way. Today, ‘the China question’, stands at the intersection of much broader debates in Westminster about the careful balance to be struck between resilience, security and openness.

It is also true that, in many ways, this notion of the ‘Golden Age’ period already felt anachronistic to some degree at the time. There was an air of naivety more at home in the psyche of the turn of the century, when many leaders and institutions truly believed that capitalism and prosperity would necessarily facilitate the rise of democracy in China. By 2014 and 2015, this concept had been thoroughly discredited, and many of the UK’s closest security allies were already scrambling to adjust their tactics, and re-evaluating the consequences of their dependencies.

As Britain ploughed on, our own economic and political fortunes shifted once again. In the aftermath of the EU Referendum, as the nation’s foreign policy entered a state of inertia, the UK continued to become increasingly economically connected to China. This entanglement was invisible to most Britons, and in some ways, aligned with the spirit of the interpretation of the Brexit mandate as inspiring a ‘truly Global Britain’ with a rebalancing of our economic and foreign policy focus outside of the European neighbourhood. The Brexit vote, as we are all very aware of now, was inspired by a complex mix of fears and ambitions, with a varied individual logic that stretched across a wide coalition.

It is worth dwelling on this point for a moment, because it bears consequences for the broader geopolitical dimensions of the UK’s evolving relationship with China. There is a significant and important distinction in the British and American political narratives on China, in part related to the distinct nature of their respective global roles and the points of competition between them and China – but also very much grounded in the deep connection in American political life between China and the narrative of scepticism and fear and anguish towards globalisation.

This narrative is predicated on the idea that the decision to allow China into the international community was a mistake taken by disconnected ‘globalists’, and that this fateful decision allowed China, through its unrivalled manufacturing capacity and the theft of American intellectual property, to strip jobs from American manufacturing towns and cities. For this reason, President Trump’s choice to incite and then escalate trade wars with China, and his combative ‘America First’ rhetoric, was also paired with a domestic agenda that promised to halt the tide of globalisation through the reopening of closed industries.

Here in the UK, it is the European Union that has borne much of the brunt of the backlash towards globalisation – with the single market, and customs union, and freedom of movement, the symbols of a market-based political model perceived to have delivered asymmetrical costs and benefits. Although the story of the rise of China taps into the visceral sense of loss and the mythology around the decline of UK manufacturing, it is not the lodestar for the central grievance.

Rather, the threat China poses to the UK is primarily conceived within the domain of national security – an abstract risk, which can take on a quality of low salience amongst ordinary Britons, but equally can also quickly escalate into a more pervasive and all-encompassing danger. In 2019, questions about the nature and scope of the UK’s engagement with China came into the political consciousness on the back of a decision to pause the advancement of the Hinkley Point nuclear reactor project, which both French and Chinese companies were financing. The fusion of debate around national security with the powerful motif of nuclear energy quickly embedded a narrative of ‘the new Cold War’, with China assuming the menacing role once held by the Soviet Union. (It is a reflection of the complex, diffuse nature of threats facing Britain and our allies that of course Russia continues to pose a significant risk across a range of other dimensions).

As ever, this development itself cannot be divorced from the political realities of the time – in the depths of our fraught negotiation with the European Union, couched in the language of ‘taking back control’, discussions about our vulnerabilities and resilience as a nation had become a subject in special sensitivity.

Yet, it is also the case that Brexit in some ways encourages closer relations with China, to the degree that – as in the austerity era – we are compelled to find novel solutions to economic growth outside of our region. Moreover, that the spirit of the Global Britain project demands that we look for opportunities and new partnerships, including in the Asia Pacific, where economic dynamism reigns. Finally, from a communications perspective, if the UK Government is seeking to securitise a very divided nation about the opportunities that lie ahead of them, and just how sunlit these uplands will be, there will necessarily be a desire to focus on the exciting dividends of our new-found independence.

Nonetheless, China’s increasingly aggressive behaviour in its region, its incursions into Hong Kong, and its belligerence towards some of the UK’s closest allies, has forced a re-evaluation of the UK-China relationship. The urgency around the need to resolve the involvement of Huawei in the nation’s 5G network has continued to encourage an outsized focus on the question of the sanctity of our critical national infrastructure. Slowly, however, the conversation has begun to move towards considering a more creative and expansive definition of ‘critical national infrastructure’ – a development we advocated for in our recent report – bringing in other areas such as higher education, and the UK’s democracy itself.

For Britain to effectively safeguard itself, the UK Government will need to be able to cast a bird’s-eye, end-to-end, holistic view across existing and future vulnerabilities, right across the board. It will need to dramatically increase its capacity for foresight, and its engagement and partnerships with a range of different sectors and industries on a shared security agenda. The Government will need to move ‘security’ out of the confines of the MoD and security services, recognising the many different entry points for interference and coercion.

A crucial mechanism to achieving this could be the establishment of a new post, a Minister for Resilience – possibly based in a new unit the Cabinet Office – who would oversee this process, and work at the intersections of the domestic and the international spheres, engaging with trade and energy higher education and industry, to ensure that the right balance is struck in the round. Although the responsibility for the National Security and Investment Bill will sit within the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the full spectrum of issues that need to be considered extend well beyond financial investment or the business environment. They cut right to the heart of our democracy, our sovereignty and our national cohesion.

The remit of this unit would cover both interference and intrusion, working with the security services, our diplomatic corps, education, the arts, domestic industry and institutions, to retrospectively instil new protocols and standards, and anticipate future weaknesses. It would lead dedicated projects to evaluate risks across a diverse range of sectors. It would work closely with the FCDO to ensure our diplomatic country experts play a central role in building knowledge and understanding of the evolving nature of external threats, and that this expertise is able to be shared with those on the new, varied frontlines of the ‘security’ landscape.

The nature of this unit, and this post, would certainly be unusual, but if we are to equip ourselves to respond to the realities of the threats we face – and their centrality to both our domestic and international activities – some degree of adaptive and agile thinking will be needed.

We must accept that the trade-offs needing to be considered between openness and resilience and security will remain a necessary paradigm for the coming decade. To build cohesive and well-functioning democracies in 2020 and beyond, an element of the political contract will need to ensure that any activities enhancing our connectivity globally are balanced with efforts to strengthen the security and prosperity of communities and individuals at home. I believe that the recent announcement of the formation of the Office of Investment in the Department for International Trade, along with the progression of the National Security and Investment Bill, demonstrates how this balanced approach might take shape.

In many ways, the challenge facing the government with regards to UK-China engagement is a perfect microcosm of the broader dynamics shaping the future of our foreign policy as a whole. In this light, there is an important point to be made about the project of values and the defence of the liberal world order, moving from being framed solely as a ‘moral mission’, to an integral component of our national resilience in an era where authoritarianism threatens the gains that had been made in the global advancement of the democratic model. It is reasonable to assume that this thinking is playing into our more substantive role in responding to China’s incursions in Hong Kong and defending the principles of the Joint Declaration, and will undoubtedly form a part of the mixed mission of a proposed ‘D10’ coalition of democracies.

Yet, even if this philosophy runs through the centre of the Integrated Review, there is also a specific need for a dedicated UK-China Engagement strategy, because even though the broad ambition here of confidence and openness and strategic resilience is very much applicable to our foreign policy as a whole, the exact nature of the challenges wrought by China’s economic entanglement, and the opportunities offered through cooperation to the existential challenge of climate change and global peace and security, are very distinct – and not necessarily comparable to other more established geopolitical doctrines, even despite our efforts to impose them.

We have clearly entered a new phase in our relations with China. The story of how we have reached this point tells us much about the ways in which the paradigms of political consciousness, and the social contract between Britons and the state, have evolved over the past decade. The new era of UK-China engagement will require a careful balance between security and openness, which will compel decisive choices. To build our confidence and resilience to respond to the demands of this challenge and the opportunities at stake, the Government must embed a bird’s eye, holistic purview of the existing and future vulnerabilities across a wide range of sectors and touch-points. It is only with our eyes open that we will see the path forward.

The BFPG report Sophia Gaston co-authored with Professor Rana Mitter, ‘After the Golden Age’, explores many of these themes in greater detail. It is available to download here.

Sophia Gaston

Sophia is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group.