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On her recent visit to China, Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May got a foretaste of the difficult path ahead in carving out a new role for the UK on the world stage. Pressured to forge new trade and investment relationships with major powers like China, the UK might soon find out that it feels much less at home outside the EU than inside.

Theresa May in China

During her now infamous September 2017 Florence speech, Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May remarked that, “the United Kingdom has never totally felt at home being in the European Union.” If the Prime Minister’s recent trip to China is anything to judge by, many Brits could soon find out that outside the EU the new “Global Britain” the Tory government promotes will feel even less at home. Pressured to forge new trade and investment relationships with countries that are not only economically far more potent than the UK but also fundamentally at odds with Britain’s liberal DNA, the Prime Minister got a foretaste in China of the difficult path that lies ahead in carving out a new role for the UK on the world stage.

Ever since early 2017, Theresa May had planned on travelling to China to sound out Beijing’s appetite for a closer economic partnership – possibly even the conclusion of a free trade agreement – post-Brexit, only to find out that her visit was not necessarily a top priority for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). 12 months later, with an election almost lost, no clear idea of the UK’s future relationship with the EU, and the Chinese President Xi Jinping openly challenging the “one country, two systems’” principle on various high-profile occasions, the trip had not become considerably more difficult than it was when first conceived.

In going to China, May was expected to bring some good economic news home, at a time of mounting concerns about Britain’s economic future after EU membership. She was also expected to raise the issues of Hong Kong and human rights. However, the Chinese state news agency Xinhua had made it known prior to May’s arrival that raising such thorny issues would be “detrimental not only to China-Britain relations, but the British leader's much trumpeted image of a ‘Global Britain’.”

May got a strong indication of the power asymmetry post-Brexit Britain will encounter

On the economic side, May might praise herself for managing to secure business deals in the ballpark of more than 9 billion GBP, of which 1 billion GBP will flow into the UK's strategically important service sector industry. However, this number pales compared to the 40 billion GBP of deals signed on Chinese President Xi’s state visit to Britain in 2015. It also remains to be seen how many of those Chinese investment promises will eventually materialize, with China’s track record on living up to its investment commitments vis-à-vis the UK being anything but promising. Ironically, the UK’s Trade Minister and hardcore Brexiteer Liam Fox, used the trip to China to suggest that remaining within the EU during a transition period would not be an obstacle to further boosting the UK’s trade relationship with China, effectively raising the question why Brexiteers had persistently framed the EU as an obstacle to UK growing trade with the rest of the world. To make matters worse, Fox also acknowledged a fact experts had pointed out in the past, namely that a free trade deal with China would still be “some time away.”

While May managed to publicly point out Chinese shortcomings on opening up key domestic markets to foreign businesses and reducing steel overcapacities – accusations that hardly raise an eyebrow in Beijing these days – her presence in China made for rather sober headlines at home. A joint UK-China review of the future trade relationship was agreed, but, unlike Theresa May and Liam Fox, most observers failed to recognize the significance of this announcement. Indeed, it seems doubtful that such a review will amount to much, as long as the UK’s future trade relationship with the EU is unclear. In the end, one of the headline successes of May’s conversations with China’s President Xi and Prime Minister Li was a lukewarm Chinese commitment to look into the possible lifting of a BSE-era ban on British beef exports to China.

At the same time, Theresa May got a strong indication of the new power asymmetry post-Brexit Britain will encounter in its relations with major powers in the future. Behind the curtains, Beijing pushed the Prime Minister hard to formally endorse BRI by signing an MoU. May eventually withstood the pressure, but China clearly sensed an opening. Indeed, what was remarkable about Beijing’s effort to coerce May into signing a BRI MoU was not the attempt as such but the intensity of the attempts, which Beijing had to date only employed in relation to smaller countries.

UK media coverage of Theresa May’s China trip was rather negative

Hong Kong and human rights were non-issues as May attempted to secure good trade and investment news, even generating praise from the “Global Times.” In an editorial, the CCP mouthpiece argued that the prime minister had wisely “sidestepped” such issues as she sought “pragmatic collaboration” between Britain and the world’s number two economy. Discussing global governance issues with a fellow UN Security Council member, as May had hoped for, also seemed to yield rather limited interest from China.

With UK media coverage of Theresa May’s China trip rather negative, "Global Britain" can at least reassure itself that it has a range of previous Prime Ministers who have built strong ties with Beijing. In an interview with China Daily, Tony Blair only recently seemed to praise China’s political system, when stating that, “There is a quality of debate in China that takes place at the highest levels of the political structure that doesn't happen in the same way in the West.” Blair also suggested that his own think tank could run a BRI research stream in the future. As one of the architects of ‘golden era’ in UK-China relations, David Cameron has recently taken up a senior position with a Chinese BRI investment fund. Indeed, in working closely with Beijing, these UK former leaders – both of them remain campaigners before the Brexit referendum – already seem to live up to the ambitions of "Global Britain."