Adam Lorand considers the past, present and future of Sino-British relations
Amidst an environment of ever-increasing uncertainty regarding the UK’s future after Brexit, Theresa May travelled to China with hopes of reinforcing diplomatic ties with the world’s second-largest economy.
China and the UK’s diplomatic relationship has a long and complicated history. Though the UK supported the Nationalists during the Chinese Civil War, it became the first major Western country to recognise the People’s Republic of China when it did so in 1950. Then, during the Korean War, the two countries fought on opposing sides. The 1960s saw a further strain in diplomatic relations, culminating in the pro-communist Hong Kong riots in the summer of 1967. Things began to improve in the 1970s. In 1972, the countries reciprocally set up embassies. In 1984, the Sino-British Joint Declaration on the handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese was signed; the handover itself occurred in 1997. Since 2000, there have been several state visits by leaders of both countries, an agreement for closer military cooperation, and the signing of a number of trade deals.
Theresa May’s recent visit to China was no doubt in search of an even firmer relationship post-Brexit. With the “special relationship” between the US and UK becoming seemingly less and less “special” under Trump – and hitting a new low last Monday as the President generated public outrage with a tweet criticising the NHS – the UK needs to look for allies elsewhere. Considering Britain’s improving diplomatic history with China, as well as China’s increasing geopolitical and economic power, the People’s Republic might seem a formidable choice. However, how one interprets the results of the PM’s visit is not at all straightforward.
Several bilateral agreements and business deals were signed while May was in China. Her critics would probably highlight how vague these announcements were, and how small the value was of the deals signed. According to Trade Secretary Liam Fox, May’s delegation signed £9 billion pounds in deals. President Trump’s delegation signed $250 billion worth of trade deals when he visited Beijing in November.
On the other hand, however, May secured an agreement to open up Chinese financial markets for some UK companies, and made some steps towards a future free trade agreement. At least this is what Fox stated; Chinese PM Li Keqiang didn’t mention financial services when he described the agreements to the press. He did say that China is going to import more British agricultural products – something that is only a very minor success at best, given the overall value of agricultural output in the British economy.
Depending on the terms of Brexit to be agreed during the course of 2018 and on future interactions between British and Chinese leadership, the two countries’ relationship could evolve either towards closer cooperation or stagnate at the current state.
If Theresa May continues to lose support as rapidly as she has been doing, then a new PM might become a defining factor of the relationship a lot sooner than expected. If May is replaced in another snap election with Jeremy Corbyn, then improved ties with China could become even higher on the agenda. The opposition leader considers China to be a more important ally than the US, according to a statement he made in January. By contrast, if the PM is replaced by Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has lately become a much-touted Conservative alternative for May, the future of Sino-British relations would be less clear. Rees-Mogg has yet to make a clear stance on China.
If the UK ends up not exiting the single market, the importance of a trade deal with China would diminish considerably – though a close political relationship between the two countries could still be important, especially if the divorce with the EU leaves political bitterness in its wake. If the UK leaves the single market, however, both the free trade deal and the close political cooperation with China could prove to be essential to the establishment of UK’s status as a strong global politico-economic force post-Brexit.