While the UK wined and dined the Chinese leader and struck deals to build nuclear power stations, the Americans were defying China’s aggressive expansionism in the South China Sea. The British strategy has angered the US and it could cause major fissures in the ‘special relationship’.
A gulf has opened up between the United Kingdom’s sycophantic pursuit of trade deals with China at any cost and the US Government’s determination to stand up to its rival super power. The danger is that the bitterness that the British strategy could provoke in the US could cause lasting damage to a “special relationship” founded on an assumption of shared values.
At the end of October, there were hugely symbolic acts by both governments that expressed those different attitudes starkly. In the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron pulled out all the stops to impress China’s President Xi Jinping on his first official visit. Banquets at Buckingham Palace and in the City of London were redolent of the new love affair. Cameron impressed his new friend with English beers and fish and chips. He proclaimed a “golden age” of British-Chinese relations, whilst Chancellor George Osborne called for Britain to become “China’s best partner in the West”. There was lots of talk of US$46 billion worth of deals, including a controversial agreement to allow China to build British nuclear power stations. However, there was no mention of China’s human rights abuses, or aggression towards its neighbouring countries.
Meanwhile, tensions between the United States and China were building. Just a couple of days after President Xi Jinping left the UK, the US sent a guided-missile destroyer into disputed waters in the South China Sea. It was a provocation. The destroyer sailed within the 12-nautical-mile radius zone surrounding reefs in the Spratly archipelago, which are the subject of a territorial dispute between China and its neighbours, especially Vietnam and the Philippines. The Americans say China has ignored maritime boundaries and artificially expanded some islands for military purposes. They argue no one can prevent them sailing in international waters. However, the Chinese responded by flying jets overhead and Navy Chief Admiral Wu Shengli said a similarly “dangerous and provocative act” could lead one day lead to war between the two superpowers.
“The UK Government doesn’t seem to be aware of the wider geo-political context. There’s a strong linkage between the UK’s relationship with China and with its relationship with the US,” said Christopher Hughes, a Professor of International Relations at the LSE. “This is a time of great tension in China-US relations. We’ve had the stand-off in the South China Sea, but also President Obama has warned the Chinese about cyber warfare and there are concerns that the coming elections in Taiwan in January will raise tensions further.”
“The UK Government has ignored all that and may be sleepwalking into a decision to walk away from the Americans and align themselves with China without thinking through the consequences. It is short sighted and there is a danger it will antagonise the Americans. Its amateurish foreign policy has made the British Government a laughing stock on China”
Professor Hughes said the lobbying of British businesses for a less critical stance towards China swayed the British Government. “Kowtowing and saying we will do anything you want if you give us money sends out the wrong message to China,” he said. The Dalai Lama expressed the same view of the British Government’s China strategy recently when he said they were only interested in “money, money, money”. “Where is the morality?” he asked.
The Dalai Lama has good reasons to feel frustrated by the British Government. In 2013, he met David Cameron to discuss China’s occupation of his homeland of Tibet and received a sympathetic ear. However, the Chinese reacted to the meeting by freezing out the UK from diplomatic relations for a year. Terrified of losing trade, Cameron has since refused to meet the Dalai Lama.
Professor Hughes says the UK has chosen a bad time to stay silent about China’s aggressive foreign policies. The strategic importance of the South China Sea makes it legitimate to question China’s actions there. Around half the world’s shipping passes through the sea, much of it Persian Gulf oil destined for Japan, China, South Korea, and other states.
“It’s hard to see us having any sway over China’s internal policies on human rights and to some extent they are right to say those are their issues,” said Professor Hughes. “But foreign policy is a different matter. These are international issues in areas where we have a lot of trade and investment.”
Prime Minister Cameron’s refusal to discuss any of these important geo-political issues has played into China’s hands by undermining the US. “If the UK supports other states in the region, we are more likely to see international law upheld. Just pursuing investment and ignoring international security is dangerous because it allows China to divide and rule, something at which they are an expert. Their diplomatic goal is to drive a wedge between the US and their allies. Creating divisions between the US and the UK, or other EU states, helps China to deal with the US,” said Professor Hughes.
The Obama administration also has major security concerns about the UK’s willingness to allow China to build its nuclear infrastructure. Intelligence agencies that fear the state-owned China General Nuclear Power Corporation (CGN) share these worries and could insert backdoor traps into its technology, enabling it to shut down stations in the event of a diplomatic row.
CGN is co-building with the France’s ECF the £25 billion nuclear plant at Hinkley Point, in Somerset, to open in 2025. Two other nuclear stations, at Sizewell in Suffolk, and Bradwell in Essex, are to follow. The plan is for the plant at Bradwell to be Chinese-designed, which will provide China with the first Western showcase of its nuclear technology.
“The decision shows the incompetence of decision-making in London. It is ludicrous to argue, as Cameron has, that the spy agency GCHQ will be able to monitor the computer systems built by China at the nuclear facilities,” said Professor Hughes. “It’s as if the naive pubic schoolboys running the Government have seen too many James Bond movies. The reality is that we are up against a huge force in China. They have been investing huge amounts of money in cyber warfare. The Australians and Americans are well aware of it and they will not let China invest in these critical sectors. You only see that in the UK, where the business community has the ear of the Chancellor and the Government do not want to listen to anyone who raises warning flags. From a security point of view, it’s a joke.”
There were already growing tensions between the US and UK over China back in March when an official spokesman in the Obama administration lambasted Britain’s “constant accommodation” of the superpower. The criticism came after the UK gave Obama virtually no notice of its decision to become the first G7 country to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a US$50 billion lending institution that China founded to counter the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. The Americans said the UK’s decision undermined the entire G7 and questioned whether the new lending institution conformed to the standards of the World Bank. “The UK’s decision humiliated the US diplomatically and earned a public rebuke. But the UK still went ahead with their arrangement with China as though they can simply ignore what the Americans think,” said Professor Hughes.
Envy of Germany’s success at exporting to China over the past decades also motivates the UK’s desperation to become China’s major European trading partner. The British have felt frozen out of China for a long time. German manufacturing proved attractive to the Chinese, but the Government was also more diplomatically proactive.
“There are sound economic reasons for the British strategy. China is moving more towards a service-based economy and that is what we can sell to them, rather than manufacturing goods like the Germans. However, if in order to gain an edge, you sacrifice fundamental principles of the European Union around human rights and international law, the strategy is deeply flawed.
“Cameron has for a long time been fixated on Syria and the Middle East. He appears to know little about China, referring to the President as ‘the Chinese Premier’ on television. That was a serious lapse of diplomatic protocol that revealed how shallow his knowledge. There’s been very little strategic thinking about the situation and the long-term consequences.”