With his careful discourse of engagement, Rishi Sunak is forced to compensate for the anti-Beijing hawks in his party. But just who ended the ‘golden age’ of UK-China relations?
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pronounced the “Golden Age” of relations with China to have ended in a landmark address last week. Despite his call for engagement with Beijing, he nonetheless labeled it as a rival and a danger to “British values”.
Such a “Golden Age” was a hallmark of his Conservative predecessors, particularly the David Cameron administration, which regarded Beijing as a trade and investment opportunity for Britain. Boris Johnson expressed similar sentiments until the US put a stop to it.
The right-wing, anti-China MPs in Sunak’s party continued to call him “weak” despite the tough-sounding speech, and even worse, Labour accused him of making a U-turn. That is because Sunak appeared to be an ultra-hawk on China during the Conservative leadership election and said that it was the biggest threat to the UK. His most recent address was a significant climbdown in comparison.
Beijing, though, will not likely have any high expectations. If it was not already clear, Sunak does not approach China with a consistent or clear strategy. In actuality, his position is littered with inconsistencies. Beijing does not believe him because he has not taken any action to support his calls for engagement with China. This is due to the fact that his actions in actuality have only amounted to hostility and a persistent caving in to US preferences regarding what the UK should or should not do.
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China is necessary to the UK, despite its denial. The UK is looking for new trade and investment partners in the wake of Brexit. China was always intended to play a crucial role because it has one of the largest global consumer markets and is one of the biggest investors. However, the US has been successful in pressuring the UK into supporting its course of fighting China through political and public opinion pressure. Prime Ministers no longer have many opportunities to interact with Beijing, even if they wish to.
By doing this, Washington has effectively imposed a “veto” over the Chinese investments that are permitted in Britain and those that are not, compelling the British government to reverse its decision on projects that it had previously approved not once, not twice, but three times. Every time they approve a project, Downing Street unexplainably finds “national security threats” that they had previously ruled out. The first instance was Huawei’s involvement in 5G, which the initial national security review had deemed to be without issue.
The second was a recent purchase of the Newport Wafer Fab in Wales by a Chinese-owned company. This project was approved in 2021, but it was withdrawn a year later due to American pressure, stunning the corporation and infuriating its staff. The third, which occurred just last week, was a Chinese investment in a nuclear power plant project. These three examples demonstrate that, despite the fact that Brexit is about “sovereignty,” the United States wields a nefarious sovereign influence over Britain’s trade and investment decisions, forcing the UK to “cut its nose off to spite its face” by making self-defeating decisions that are contrary to national interests and only serve American preferences.
In this situation, it could be worthwhile to consider who is really to blame for the “Golden Era of Relations” coming to an end. Are they doing it of their own accord or because the US forced them to? In either case, this seriously calls into question Sunak’s own attempt to negotiate with China in a reasonable and logical manner. Even worse, he now faces criticism from both Washington and his own party, in addition to opposition from outside the party. The Conservative Party’s Iain Duncan Smith-led Eurosceptic faction has changed to become the Sinophobic faction as of 2020. In their rhetoric, alienating China has merely taken the place of severing connections with Europe, and their aim—as it has been for the previous 30 years—is to disrupt, challenge, and sabotage the government’s China policy wherever it can be.
And it is for this reason alone that Rishi Sunak is compelled to compensate for the China hawks. He is well aware that China is a significant economic partner for the United Kingdom, but given his lack of ability to take substantial action and Beijing’s mounting resentment toward Britain, it is clear how little power he actually has.
But to be perfectly honest, this goes completely against the purpose of Brexit. Unsurprisingly, Britain is far worse off as a result of voluntarily giving up the opportunity to interact with China as an independent nation.