UK-China Relations and Britain's Integrated Review Refresh: No Hope in Sight
"Looking ahead to 2023, it is extremely likely that Sino-British relations will deteriorate further."
Two years ago, when Britain first published its “Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy”, tensions between London and Beijing had long since been rising. Chinese experts, however, were on the whole still expressing cautious optimism about the future of their country’s ties with the UK. Cui Hongjian (崔洪建), a well-known Chinese analyst of European affairs perhaps best known abroad for his trenchant remarks in China's Global Times, commented that the distinction made between labelling Russia as a security threat and China as both a systemic competitor and an economic threat to the UK, "indicates that the British government still wishes to maintain a realistic [i.e. pragmatic] approach to its relations with China." Many of these experts believed that Britain’s rapprochement with the US was set to be short-lived and expressed faith in what they perceived to be British diplomacy’s immutable characteristic — its interest-based pragmatism. This was sure to lead Britain back to a rebalancing of its political and economic interests in favour of Beijing.
Two years later, Sino-British relations are still in the doldrums and the wishful thinking of the past has gradually been replaced by a general sense of pessimism among Chinese experts (see “UK-China relations: From cautious optimism to disillusioned pessimism”). The replacement of a disliked China hawk in the person of Liz Truss by a more “pragmatic” Rishi Sunak as Britain’s prime minister did lead to a short uptick in optimism among some Chinese analysts but any hope of a warming of relations in the short-term seems since to have been dashed. Talk of tensions possibly affecting economic ties has also emerged (see also Li Guanjie below).
Today’s edition of Sinification takes a look at two different pieces. The first is a reaction to last week’s update of Britain’s 2021 “Integrated Review" by one of China’s mainstream Europe specialists Wang Shuo (王朔). It was published in China’s Global Times and therefore addresses a general audience. But its views are largely in line with other Chinese analyses of the UK. The second piece by Li Guanjie (李冠杰), another relatively mainstream Europe-watcher in China, provides a brief overview of Sino-British relations in 2022 and what to expect in 2023. His analysis was published last month in Fudan University’s yearly “Report on European Policies Towards China”.
Today’s excerpts were translated with the help of Edward Kuperman.
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Wang Shuo’s reaction to Britain’s “Integrated Review Refresh”
The United Kingdom’s “Integrated Review Refresh” plays up the China threat theory and mentions Taiwan for the first time.
The Review is a symbol of Britain’s growing antagonism towards China in recent years.
Two main reasons explaining this hostility:
Britain is using China as a scapegoat for its problems at home: a struggling economy, volatile politics and a divided society.
Post-Brexit Britain has few allies left and is intent on shoring up its relations with Washington.
Even a significant increase in the UK’s defence spending may not be able to resolve the serious deficiencies that now plague the British Armed Forces.
Global Britain was nothing but an illusion.
Li Guanjie’s overview of UK-China relations
The United Kingdom’s policy towards China has remained as tough as ever but with the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, it has had less time to fully address the supposed threat posed by China.
Politicians and civil servants in the UK have been criticising China and hyping up the China threat theory as a means of diverting attention away from Britain’s post-Brexit and post-pandemic domestic woes.
The lack of high-level contacts between London and Beijing has damaged relations.
“Extremely likely” that Sino-British relations will continue to deteriorate. A labour government would hardly affect this trend.
Sino-British relations risk going into “free fall” were the lack of high-level engagement to continue.
Downing Street may yet designate China as an actual “threat” to the UK.
Britain’s “interference in China's internal affairs” is bound to increase further.
Downing Street’s growing hostility towards Beijing and its “anti-China” policies may well begin to affect economic cooperation between both sides.
1. Wang Shuo’s reaction to Britain’s Integrated Review Refresh:
“The British government released a new version of its "Integrated Review of Security, Defence and Foreign Policy" report on March 13. [The document] not only rehashes the same old tunes to play up the Chinese security threat, but also includes the Taiwan question [台湾问题] for the first time, mentioning the so-called threat of Mainland China to Taiwan. It must be noted that the British government’s finger-pointing [指手画脚] at China's internal affairs has not been going on for just a day or two. Assessments like these are released annually by the UK, but hostility towards China has increased significantly over the past two years. [The British government] has even called [China] the UK’s greatest ‘strategic challenge’ [Comment: last week’s “Integrated Review Refresh” calls China under the CCP an ‘epoch-defining and systemic challenge’].”
“So, what is the British government's aim in this renewed escalation of toughness towards China? Firstly, of course, it is the externalisation [外化] of Britain's own domestic problems. The Russo-Ukrainian conflict, which has been going on for more than a year, has indeed had a considerable impact on Europe, Britain included. Yet the UK’s problems are much more intractable than those of other [European] countries. Britain's economic growth was arguably one of the worst among OECD countries last year and it is the only G7 country to have failed to return to pre-epidemic levels. The UK is still very likely to fall into recession this year and, so far, double-digit inflation has undoubtedly taken centre stage [抢眼得很].”
“Its economy is in trouble and society is restless. Britons taking to the streets to demonstrate [上街游行示威] has become par for the course [家常便饭]. The social divisions caused by Brexit have profoundly changed British politics: the elites have lost touch with the people [脱节]; political struggles [党争政争] are never-ending; the Conservative Party is changing prime ministers at lightning speed [如走马灯], its reputation has hit rock bottom [扫地] and its approval ratings have dropped to under 30%. Under such circumstances, the Conservative government certainly cannot argue that the democratic system has gone wrong nor say that Brexit was a mistake, let alone publicly admit to its own incompetence. The problem, then, can only be someone else's fault—someone else is ruining things [搞破坏]. As a result, London, like Washington, is using China-bashing [甩锅中国] as a tactic and is putting all [its] problems into the ‘China threat’ basket.”
“Likewise, the Conservative government's promise of a ‘global Britain’ has progressively proven to be a mere ‘dream’. A Britain that has abandoned the [world’s] largest single market that is the EU, mismanaged [搞不好] relations with Russia and China and has little credibility in the developing world, does not seem to have much choice but to cling to the US [抱美国大腿]. But the UK’s value for Washington following its exit from the EU has diminished and British hopes for a [transatlantic] free trade agreement have been ignored [不予理睬]. Britain is increasingly aware that to be valued by the United States, it has to ‘make an impact’ [有所作为] or even pay a price by, for example, helping the US handle a few ‘inconvenient matters’. That is why Britain is sometimes more vocal [跳得比谁都高] than anybody else on China-related issues. In other words, it is not that China has done anything [bad] to the UK, but that Britain is playing dumb while firmly insisting that China will do this or will do that [中国会如何如何].”
“The UK has long since ceased to be the great British Empire [大英帝国] it once was and, no matter how much it blusters, its bark is worse than its bite [色厉内荏]. Not long ago, a senior U.S. military official pointed out that the British Army is no longer seen as a top fighting force. When questioned by Parliament, Britain’s Defence Secretary Ben Wallace openly admitted that ‘our army has been hollowed out and underfunded’. Military historian Max Hastings stated that the British armed forces were suffering from a shortage of weapons and a decline in the number of servicemen, which prevents London from projecting hard political power [军事政治力量] globally. Even with a large injection of funds, these systemic problems may not be correctable. This indicates that Britain's hard power is already a far cry from what it claims to be.”
“Furthermore, many of its actions are by no means as ‘moral’ as Britain claims them to be. First, let’s not [even] mention how many global hotspots for geopolitical conflict were left behind by the British in the past. Speaking of [Britain] today, does the UK genuinely care about Ukraine and its people when it is closely following Washington in advocating toughness against Russia? Likewise, how can Britain care about regional peace and stability when it is expanding its interventions in the Taiwan Strait? Ultimately, these are all self-hypnotic stories [自我催眠的故事]. The more the UK revels in them, the more unable it will be to find the right path to take.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Name: Wang Shuo (王朔)
Position: Head of the Diplomacy Department at the School of International Relations and Diplomacy, Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU).
Formerly: Deputy director of the Institute of European Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR is an influential think tank linked to China’s Ministry of State Security).
Research focus: Europe
Education: BA University of International Relations and Renmin University of China; PhD China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.
Experience abroad: Visiting Scholar at Denver University and at the Higher Institute of Languages of Tunis.
2. Li Guanjie’s overview of UK-China relations (excerpts):
“In 2022, the British government underwent frequent changes but its policy towards China remained as tough as ever [一如既往的强硬]. As a result of the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, Downing Street was left with little time to address the so-called ‘China threat’. However, strategically speaking, Britain’s government has been [intent on] driving a wedge between China and Russia so as to prevent deeper cooperation between the two sides. Britain has continued to interfere in China's domestic affairs using double standards, issuing irresponsible statements and engaging in improper actions in matters relating to Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan. Due to poor high-level communication between Beijing and London, people-to-people and cultural exchanges between both countries have been hampered. Downing Street has [also] forcibly intervened in the extremely resilient economic cooperation [between both sides] on national security grounds. This has affected normal cooperation between China and the UK in the areas of trade, investment and science and technology, and has caused discontent among the British population.”
“In addition, the former leader of the Conservative Party, [Iain] Duncan Smith, MI5 Director General [Ken] McCallum and others have been doing their upmost to play up the ‘China threat theory’ [中国威胁论], blaming the UK’s own problems on Chinese interference and using this as a means to defuse Britain’s social crisis and deflect domestic tensions caused by the pandemic and Brexit in recent years. Advocates of the ‘[China] threat theory’ accuse our country of ‘trying to infiltrate and subvert the British political system’, of seeking to influence British parliamentarians through engaging in ‘political meddling activities’ and of trying to change the rules of the game. This is the UK's greatest strategic challenge. The fact is that Britain is building up its armaments, generating confrontation, reshaping the existing international system, turning the trend towards globalisation and international cooperation into a situation of confrontation between ‘us and them’ [敌我对决] and trying to become the leader of the so-called ‘liberal democratic camp’.”
“If the UK's approach to its relations with China were to deteriorate further, this would just make matters worse and the lack of high-level engagement between the UK and China will cause bilateral relations to go into ‘free fall’ [使双边关系’自由落体’] … Britain’s three [recent] prime ministers, Johnson, Truss and Sunak, have not visited China. [Furthermore,] senior Chinese and British officials only communicate with each other on urgent matters by phone.”
“With the British government stirring up trouble, the deepening of investment-related and technological exchanges and cooperation between China and the UK will be hampered [将会受阻]. And although bilateral cooperation between both countries is [still] highly complementary and resilient, economic cooperation may yet take a downward turn [可能会走下坡路].”
“Looking ahead to 2023, it is extremely likely [极有可能] that Sino-British relations will deteriorate further. British Prime Minister Sunak has already announced that China and the UK’s ‘golden age’ is over and could yet change his characterisation of the PRC from ‘competitor’ [竞争对手] to ‘threat’ [威胁]. [Moreover,] the UK is bound to increase its interference in China's internal affairs … Even if the Labour Party were to come to power, this artificially distorted pattern of Sino-British relations would be difficult to improve.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Name: Li Guanjie (李冠杰)
Position: Researcher at the Shanghai Academy of Global Governance and Area Studies (SAGGAS), Shanghai International Studies University (2014-present).
Research focus: Britain, international relations and the history of political thought.
Education: BA Henan University (2003); MA Donghua University (2007); PhD East China Normal University (2012)
Experience abroad: Chinese Embassy in Nigeria (2019-2021)
For an overview of reactions to the "Integrated Review Refresh" coming from the UK, see the always insightful: