Looking to China, Britain Searches for a New Global Role

The UK attempts to reorient itself amid a rapidly shifting transatlantic and international order.

Great Britain, Dean Acheson once said, had lost an Empire, but had yet to find a role. For a time, it seemed to settle into a new role of deputy to America’s sheriff, a supporter of the postwar order against the Soviet threat. Over the past few years, Britain has implemented a radical shift in its foreign policy orientation: the result thus far is that it appears adrift and unsure of where it belongs: too small to compete in a world of Chinas, Indias and Brazils, London seems to be drifting away from every organization that added weight to its punch during the Cold War—“resigning,” some have suggested, as a global power. Certain elements within both major parties feel ambiguous about the transatlantic “Special Relationship,” are skeptical about playing a hard power role in tandem within NATO and are trying to push Britain out of the world’s largest single market, the European Union. It might not all be for the worse, but certainly no one can argue that Britain isn’t undergoing a radical departure from the postwar foreign policy alignment.

Some of this might be down to domestic reasons: there are some who believe that the British economy has over-invested in financial services in the City of London, at the expense of manufacturing, the traditional economic lifeblood of the North. Scotland’s push for independence is economically driven, as well as driven by identity politics that emerged during the referendum. The legacy of these uneven and shortsighted policies has been to push the left and right into two completely irreconcilable visions of Britain, neither very plausible, neither very attuned to British society or to global politics. On the one side sits the Conservative Party, intent on building on the financial power of London in what might be called a neoliberal mercantilism: British influence shorn of hard power and geopolitics. On the other side of the aisle sits an increasingly Soviet-looking Labour Party, more focused on purging moderate party members than learning how to govern.

As Britain has changed, so has the world in which it sits: increased multipolarity has also brought increased instability. Growing economies in Asia have reinvigorated old rivalries in the Asia Pacific. Rising power and rising ideologies wish to supplant the postwar liberal order with their own visions of order. The 1990s era of failed states has given way to the an era of failed regions (as some might describe the Middle East). The era of East Asian stability, built on a fair, rules-based U.S. trading system and backed by an alliance network, has given way to a challenging China, seemingly intent on edging out the US and building an China-friendly order. The liberal order of economic and political norms also seems challenged by the chaos of the fight against terrorism at home, ongoing Euro crisis and autocratic-driven norms of “relativism” in Western universities and media.

One area where Britain’s new direction seems to be making a splash has been outreach to China. The policy, a brainchild of Chancellor George Osborne, is based on a win-win venture to encourage co-investment, further integrate China into global institutions and, where this is not forthcoming, help China create new ones. The policy is perfectly sound—for the 1990s, when China was still “biding its time.” It seems perfectly in tune for an increasingly liberal China. But in the aftermath of the Beijing Olympics, many began to realize that the Chinese state was clamping down on dissidents and moving away from domestic rule of law. Rule of law, as practiced at the Fourth Plenum in 2014, was actually “rule of party,” with more political repression rather than less. Beijing’s version of rule of law had simultaneously revealed itself in its handling of relations on its maritime periphery. Over the course of a decade, China’s single-minded pursuit of an expansionist maritime policy, backed by a massive military build-up, has soured relations with nearly every maritime neighbor. The 1990s’ soft diplomacy with ASEAN has now been equated to bulldozing. Closer to home, China has engaged in an unprecedented cyber drain of Western intellectual property and business data, including from British companies.