In this issue of the MERICS Europe China 360° we cover the following topics:
- UK-China relations: From cautious optimism to disillusioned pessimism
- EU-China High-Level Economic Dialogue
- Tech-competition: the Netherlands considers new export controls on ASML
By Thomas des Garets Geddes
Britain is set to welcome a new prime minister in September following Boris Johnson’s reluctant decision to step down as leader of the Conservative Party on July 7. But regardless of who replaces him, Chinese scholars expect no significant breakthrough with Number 10.
The change of mood is striking compared with just eighteen months ago. Until then, and despite a sharp souring of relations throughout 2020, most Chinese experts had remained cautiously optimistic about the future of their country’s ties with the UK. Many believed that Britain’s rapprochement with the US was set to be short-lived and expressed faith in what they perceived to be British diplomacy’s immutable characteristic — its interest-based pragmatism. This was sure to lead Britain back to a rebalancing of its political and economic interests in favor of Beijing.
In the past year, however, pessimism among Chinese scholars seems to have become the new norm. “In the short term, the chances of a warming of relations between China and the UK are slim … the long-standing ‘cold politics and hot business’ between China and the UK may worsen and enter a period of ‘cold politics and cold business’”, writes Li Guanjie, a researcher at Shanghai International Studies University (SISU).
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Two years ago, Chinese experts such as Liu Jin, an analyst at the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS), would often see the “efforts made by the UK to resist US pressure” on issues such as Huawei or the South China Sea as evidence that Britain would avoid “taking sides” in the context of US-China rivalry. Occasional pro-engagement signaling by Downing Street was also highlighted as potential signs that Downing Street would sooner or later return to a more “pragmatic” and “independent” approach towards China.
But disillusionment has clearly replaced such reserved optimism. “The special relationship between the UK and the US has warmed up more than expected”, stresses Xu Ruike, a professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University. Britain and China “no longer emphasize seeking common ground while preserving differences, but rather confrontation”, regrets Li.
Britain’s alleged attempts to become a “leader” and “convener” of a US-backed coalition of liberal countries are increasingly seen as posing a threat to China’s interests. In Ukraine, the UK “is attempting to drag the world into a bipolar setup by playing up the ‘Russia-China threat’, warns Kong Yuan, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). Kong fears that Britain’s attempts at “shaping a new European security landscape” both through NATO and through specific “mini-multilateral mechanisms” (such as the recent British–Polish–Ukrainian trilateral agreement), might lead to the “dismantling of European strategic autonomy” and to an increasingly US-tilted Europe.
The UK’s growing involvement in the Indo-Pacific has also become an irritant. Whereas the recent forays of other European countries into the region tend to be somewhat downplayed, Britain’s efforts to actively engage with China-sceptic countries such as Japan, India or Vietnam and, more importantly, to take part in US-backed coalitions against China have been widely condemned. Chen Xiaochen and Chen Hong, two professors at East China Normal University, argue that last year’s trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK, and the US (AUKUS) effectively bolsters Britain’s future compliance with US goals in the region. Hu Jie, a professor from Wuhan University, worries that the UK's active involvement in the Indo-Pacific will “contribute to the internationalization of the South China Sea dispute and encourage other countries with serious concerns to take further action”.
Whoever succeeds Boris Johnson, current commentary in China expects British foreign policy to remain much as it is now — Atlanticist and adversarial. Nevertheless, with the Tory leadership race now down to just two candidates (Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss), a Chinese preference for a former chancellor of the Exchequer who has previously called for a “mature and balanced relationship” with the PRC over a Foreign Secretary who the Chinese have repeatedly criticized for her “anti-China” comments, seems conceivable. Hope is never lost.
Over the last weeks Beijing intensified its diplomatic outreach to European counterparts in an attempt to stabilize EU-China relations. During the G20 foreign ministers meeting in Bali between July 7–8, Wang Yi met with High Representative Josep Borrell and the foreign ministers of Germany, France, Spain and the Netherlands, signaling interest in boosting engagement with the EU.
Further signals come from Wang’s plans to visit Europe in September and, even more importantly, from the informal back-channeled invitation extended by Xi Jinping to the leaders of Germany, France, Italy and Spain to visit Beijing this November following the conclusion of the Party Congress.
Beijing is likely mindful of the increased transatlantic alignment on China, visible at the recent NATO summit, which has been facilitated by its own tacit support for Moscow. Equally, its domestic economic disturbance has further triggered a call for stable economic relations. While the EU should note a change in China’s rhetoric, it is vital to expect concrete proposals to accompany the conciliatory tone and to maintain a united position in communicating on with Beijing.