The UK and China have seen a rapid deterioration in their political and trading relationship, most obviously evidenced by bans being proposed or implemented against Chinese tech firms such Huawei and TikTok. This marks a major departure from what had be described as a "Golden Age" in UK-Sino relations and results from what many observers attribute to intense pressure from the administration of US President Donald Trump.
Tom Fowdy, a British researcher, writer, and political analyst who speaks Mandarin, explains why, in his view, the souring of Britain's relationship with China is detrimental to the UK's long-term interests and is largely being driven by the US' desire to maintain "American hegemony" over strategic sectors in the global marketplace.
Sputnik: How would you describe the current state of the Anglo-Chinese political and economic relationship?
Mr Fowdy: Once heralded as a "Golden Age" and "China's partner in the west", relations between the two countries have declined considerably in recent months owing to the government's COVID-19 blame game, pressure from the United States to take a tougher line and controversies surrounding Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Prior to this, Boris Johnson was a strong advocate of growing economic ties with China, expressing interest in the Belt and Road initiative and showing support for Xi Jinping as late as February.
Mr Fowdy: The United States is a primary catalyst of declining relations through the policies of the Trump administration which seek to forcefully contain China's rise, which in turn has influenced through discourse and political support, anti-China factions within Britain's Conservative Party who have sought to put pressure on the government to take a tougher line. Influential hard right Conservative MPs such as Iain Duncan Smith have bought into U.S cold war rhetoric against China and subsequently influenced rebellions against the frontbench on things such as Huawei.
The impact of this was limited however, until the impact of COVID-19 forced anti-China sentiment into the mainstream in Britain, empowered anti-China MPs and seen the country weaponised as a scapegoat for Britain's own failures in handling the virus. Other factors such as Hong Kong only contributed to the new hostile atmosphere which the virus and the U.S had articulated.
Sputnik: To what extent are worsening UK-Chinese relations purely a product of pressure from the US and to what extent does this reflect inherent British interests?
Mr Fowdy: The U.S is putting significant pressure on the United Kingdom to take a harder line against China, a focus it is coordinating across all the "five eyes" countries. In practice however, such pressure is detrimental to British interest as China remains a vital economic partner and source of investment, especially in the context of an economy which is threatened by Brexit and has already placed its ties with the EU in jeopardy. The Huawei ban, and its need for a 7 year timeline, is an example of how U.S pressure is hurting British interests, by narrowing the telecommunications market and knocking out its most affordable and effective vendor.
Sputnik: Is the problem simply about fears over the increasing influence of Chinese technology firms or is there more to it than that?
Mr Fowdy: Fears concerning Chinese technology are being used in a politically motivated way in order to affirm American hegemony over key strategic sectors which China is catching up in. Allegations levelled at companies such as Huawei and TikTok have in fact never been proven, and are focused in attempting to crush globally acclaimed brands from China in order to sustain unbridled American dominance.
Sputnik: Do you see any evidence of deviation between the position of the UK and the US on relations with China?
Mr Fowdy: There is significant evidence of deviation between the two. Boris Johnson is a self-proclaimed Sinophile who sees China as more of an opportunity than a threat. The United Kingdom have avoided the outright cold war approach advocated by Washington and have sought where they can to balance relations between the two powers. Evidence of this includes the Foreign Offices' unwillingness to place sanctions upon Chinese officials over Hong Kong and Xinjiang, as well as to approve other investments from Huawei and Bytedance. The UK is trying to avoid a "sledgehammer" approach to issues with China and recognizes it does not have the clout to win an economic struggle. As a result, the government reservedly, than enthusiastically follows the U.S with some of its decisions influenced by pressure rather than willing choice.
Sputnik: What can be done to avoid the worsening of relations between the UK and China?
Mr Fowdy: The UK ought to make distance from the U.S and articulate a more independent foreign policy based on a more pragmatic rendering of interests. However the discourse of British exceptionalism which drives many of its positions, as well as its close affiliation to Washington, makes this difficult to implement as it consolidates an out-dated view that Britain is a moral force and leader for the world, a "Rule Britannia" mindset if you will. Reinventing Britain's role in the world has thus proved difficult, and this is why it finds itself within the dilemma of Brexit as many live on an unrealistic perception of their country's status..
Nonetheless, if the Trump administration loses the election in November these challenges may be easier to navigate in its relationship with China, and less controversial as it will still remain important as an economic partner. Beijing on the other hand can improve relations by quelling fears about Hong Kong and Xinjiang, which are being used to generate political capital for anti-China policies.
Sputnik: Why, if at all, should the average Brit care about worsening relations between Britain and China?
Mr Fowdy: Similar to how the European Union is perceived, the average Brit lacks an understanding of why their country's relationship with China is important and beneficial. Cultural, ideological and geopolitical differences make this even worse than the situation with Brussels. China is commonly viewed as something different, scary and owing to orientalism and racism, backwards.
As a result, the public need to be informed that China is not a "source of cheap junk" but is a vital economic partner for Britain for jobs, trade and investment and that the policies espoused by the Trump administration will come at a great cost to the country. We have already chosen to alienate one massive economic partner in the European Union, we cannot afford to do so with another regarding China. The United States are making aggressive demands to us on trade and they do not represent a sole or feasible alternative.