Is the UK Getting Dangerously Friendly with China?

Xi Jinping's recent visit has many howling that the Brits have "sold out" to Beijing.

Perfidious Albion strikes again. Or so one would be forgiven for believing, given the international press coverage of Xi Jinping’s historic state visit to the United Kingdom. Britain has “sold out” to the Chinese, critics argue, by downplaying widely held Western concerns over human rights, cyber security and maritime disputes in the South China Sea in hopes that Beijing will funnel lucrative investment towards Britain. In doing so, London is pursuing a mercantile-realist brand of foreign relations that undermines U.S.-led attempts to coax China into ameliorating its foreign policies and improving its record on human rights.

To be sure, there is some truth to these criticisms. Prime Minister David Cameron has been muted in his criticism of China’s human rights record, and the prominent role afforded to Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne—Britain’s cabinet minister responsible for finance—symbolized just what the British government’s priorities are when it comes to Sino-British relations: trade, investment and a cordial strategic understanding.

Although Xi’s visit was somewhat tainted by news coverage that linked Britain’s imperiled steel industry with cheap Chinese imports, Britain’s leaders will probably be cheered by what was cemented between the two countries: Chinese capital will play a leading role in financing the development of a new nuclear power station in Britain, Carnival cruise ships will be exported to China to the tune of 2.6 billion pounds and Rolls-Royce will benefit from a major deal with the Chinese airline company HNA Group.

These deals only compound Britain’s growing closeness with China. In March of this year, for example, Britain became the first European nation to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a move condemned in Washington as an example of Britain’s unwise “accommodation” of China. Officials in Washington worry that the AIIB will undermine the influence of Western-led international institutions such as the World Bank, and so it came as some surprise that Britain—usually a country that can be relied upon to follow the lead given by U.S. officials—would break ranks and throw its lot in with the Chinese on such an important matter.

But Britain’s strategy of forging closer ties with China is nothing new, and certainly predates the current Conservative government. In November 2008, for example, Foreign Secretary David Miliband quietly altered Britain’s longstanding foreign policy towards Tibet in order to smooth relations with the authorities in Beijing. For nearly a hundred years, the official stance of the British government was to recognize Chinese “suzerainty” over Tibet but not its “sovereignty.” This meant that while China was the ultimate power in Tibet, the province was distinct from other Chinese provinces—it was a vassal state or protectorate, but not an integral part of China proper.

The distinction was held dear by those who campaign for greater autonomy for Tibet. Most importantly, it allowed the Tibetan government-in-exile to argue that, at least at the time of the Simla Accords signed in 1914 between Britain, China and Tibet, it was generally accepted that Tibet was not under Chinese sovereignty. It follows that, while China’s 1950 invasion of Tibet and subsequent policies of assimilation might have established de facto control over the province, such actions could never erase the de jure exceptionalism enjoyed by Tibet.

At the time, Miliband justified his government’s change of policy by arguing that the concept of suzerainty was an anachronism in the twenty-first century. He was right on this point, of course. But it does not follow that the British government was obliged to recognize complete Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, or to erase any distinction between Tibet and other Chinese provinces in the language of official British foreign policy. That Miliband chose this path was, instead, likely indicative of a hardheaded realpolitik desire to pave the way for closer Sino-British ties.

Or consider London’s response to the so-called Umbrella Movement protests in Hong Kong last year. When British parliamentarians were banned from traveling to Hong Kong in the midst of the demonstrations, officials in London were hardly scathing of their Chinese counterparts. The last colonial-era governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, has gone on record accusing London of refusing to support pro-democracy groups inside the territory out of fears that Beijing will retaliate by curtailing the trade relationship. Again, the inescapable conclusion is that Britain’s most high-profile leaders are more interested in currying favor with Beijing than anything else.