Looking to China, Britain Searches for a New Global Role

November 4, 2015 Topic: Global Governance Region: Europe Tags: ChinaUnited KingdomMercantilism

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.

Despite these unnerving trends, Prime Minister Cameron rolled out the red carpet to welcome President Xi to London this October. On this visit to London, Xi Jinping signed a number of important deals with Prime Minister Cameron, all aimed at Britain’s pocketbook. The first is a series of studies intended to help make London the primary trading hub of an internationalized RMB; the second is linking Shanghai and London stock markets; the third was a number of co-developed British nuclear power plants that China will build. Given the trend of Sino-American relations, Osborne’s outreach policy to Beijing has met a distinctly frosty reception in Washington. Some might argue that Britain’s China policy is greater than just transatlantic alliance foibles, but rather a hint at something deeply important and integral to the future of the Western liberal order.

Osborne’s policy actually recalls Victorian-era mercantilism: when trade built Britain an empire, and London had “no permanent friends or allies, only permanent interests.” These interests were trade, and the empire was run from the City as much as from Westminster. However, as Britain was busily building an empire, it was also developing a politically liberal culture—driven by Locke, Mill and others—that was implicitly opposed to empire. British notions of liberty were increasingly universal in their scope, which partially explains first the abolition of slavery and later the calm (and almost embarrassed) manner in which the empire ended. For Osborne to attempt to return British foreign policy to Lord Palmerston’s age is not only going to be difficult; it is against the spirit and culture of British political culture. This much was apparent in the British dailies during Xi’s visit.

British outreach to China is also based on misperceptions of China. China is slowing down, and its stock market troubles reveal a leadership that is either unwilling or unable to truly liberalize its economy. As economist Michael Pettis has pointed out, among others, this will slow down Chinese growth, perhaps before China’s age problem also becomes a concern. As with political liberalization, economic liberalization seems to be reversing in China: intervening heavily in a stock market crisis is one thing, but allegations of false financial reporting, combined with Beijing’s decision to arrest a number of prominent financial journalists, seem indicative of a deeper misunderstanding of market forces. The desire to make the RMB the global trading currency seems based on geopolitical concerns and prestige, and does not consider China’s inability to liberalize control over the currency.

In some ways, it’s too soon to tell if Britain’s new foreign policy shift is a permanent shift, or merely the type of semi-alignment that U.S. policy underwent under Robert Zoellick. As has become apparent in the National Interest and other media, the “Special Relationship” is under strain, and not all the troubles are due to the China policy. Some in the UK put it all at the door of a decade of ill-conceived and ill-planned American wars, saying Britain is tired of spending blood and treasure on far-off wars that aren't of its choosing. Whether these views, reflected in polls and debates among Britain’s political community in 2010, continue or not remains to be seen. However, it should be noted that the age of neoconservative wars did not just begin in the post-9/11 period: they began with Tony Blair’s Chicago Speech, which dramatically highlighted a right to intervene. This policy characterized British thinking as much as it did American over the past decade, even to the point where Britain chose intervention over U.S. objections (such as in Libya).

The question is whether Britain will find a role for itself is not really a question at all. It already has a role—one it has forgotten in the haze of imperial dreams. All too easily, critics of British foreign policy have characterized it as following the U.S.’ lead. Certainly, if one looks at the direction of policy and resources, London is ill equipped to compete with Washington. But returning to the great liberal debates created in London in the nineteenth century, one can say that America is living many of the dreams those British writers held. If Britain has followed the U.S. closely over the past 70 years, it is not because of race, culture, or language—though certainly those things played a part—but because the two states share a common vision of how the world should be ordered. For their part, Americans also associate Britain with empire, and are not used to thinking of British political liberalism. From the Magna Carta, to Parliament, to the Civil War and finally to universal suffrage, to the UN and NATO, British democracy and institution-building has followed its own tempered path, influenced and influencing that other grand experiment on the North American continent.

Perhaps the transatlantic relationship needs to be recalibrated, reconfigured. Perhaps Britons also need to rethink their role in that relationship, and accurately assess the advantages over the supposed disadvantages. The next thirty years will be a period of competing world orders: Britain, the United States and other members who favor a rules-based liberal international order should remember the alternatives before abandoning the current one so fast.