Article Published July 31st, 2020

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.

With the fifth anniversary of the China-Britain Comprehensive Strategic Partnership approaching, it is remarkable to see how dramatically this much-heralded “golden era” of relations has turned into one of deepening mistrust and bitter acrimony.

In the past few weeks, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has banned Huawei from involvement in Britain’s 5G networks, suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong and extended its China arms embargo to the city. In light of these developments, the strategic partnership’s lofty aspirations of “enduring, inclusive and win-win cooperation” with “close high-level exchanges” and “deeper political trust” sound like a hollow statement of intent.

The unfolding failure of this partnership could not have been more evident than at the United Nations Human Rights Council. In late June, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab raised a motion condemning China’s plan to impose its national security legislation on Hong Kong.

The UK’s statement was supported by 27 other countries, including 15 European Union member states. About a dozen EU countries appeared not to support the UK’s statement. These included three of the top five EU economies – Italy, Spain and Poland – although none of the EU countries were among the 53 states supporting China’s position.

Why, though, should anyone profess surprise at the UK government’s recent combative approach in its relations with China? Behind the controversies surrounding Huawei, the Uygurs and Hong Kong – over which Downing Street has been criticised for increasingly mimicking US foreign policy – lie several elements of long-standing tensions within British domestic politics.

Boris Johnson vows to change visa system for Hongkongers under national security lawBoris Johnson vows to change visa system for Hongkongers under national security law

The strategic partnership was set up before the Brexit referendum in June 2016 by then-prime minister David Cameron, who advocated remaining within the EU. Johnson, Cameron’s main political rival despite being in the same party, led the “Leave” campaign and won.

Once Johnson consolidated his hold on power through an election landslide last December, it was inevitable he would lead the charge – egged on by his party’s large parliamentary majority of staunch Brexiters – to undo a strategic partnership that was partially framed as a vehicle for broader EU-related aspirations.

In a joint statement, released at the time of announcing the “golden era” of bilateral ties, the UK fully supported “China’s deepening comprehensive strategic partnership with the EU in line with the China-EU 2020 Strategic Agenda for Cooperation”.

The statement went on to say both sides backed the early conclusion of an ambitious and comprehensive China-EU investment agreement alongside a China-EU Free Trade Agreement, as set out in the 17th China-EU Summit Joint Statement.

Frankly, the notion of Britain’s foreign policy as an adjunct or tool of EU international relations is anathema to the ruling political class. Any high-level UK foreign relations formulated in tandem with EU objectives may well be viewed from the Brexit clique’s perspective as nothing less than poisonous to the country’s interests and sovereignty.

Such an outlook probably also explains Raab’s denial of US influence being the singular reason in the decision to ban Huawei from Britain’s 5G network. While admitting US sanctions were a factor in the decision, Raab insisted their separate interests were essentially overlapping, without elaborating further.

Across the Channel, both Europe’s national governments and the EU arguably pursue a more balanced, diverse and long-term approach to their ties with China. On Huawei, for instance, Berlin has not ruled it out from operating in Germany’s 5G network. As a precaution, the German government plans to strengthen protections against possible risks to national security.

Meanwhile, the EU’s two biggest economies have pushed ahead with high-level talks with Beijing. These included the seventh China-France High-Level Economic and Financial Dialogue this month.

In June, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has visited China 12 times since being elected to office, held a video discussion with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on bilateral economic relations.

Such ongoing exchanges have played a constructive role in supporting the expansion of European countries’ bilateral trade with China at a time of increased risks of trade barriers, including between China and the EU itself.

The same case for regular and ongoing high-level talks on cooperation may also be made in supporting the free flow of direct investments between China and various European countries.

The imperative for constructive dialogue has become even more pronounced, given that European countries are increasingly concerned over acquisitions made by foreign companies in key areas of technology and strategic economic sectors.

This has, in turn, culminated in countries introducing investment screening legislation for the broad purposes of preserving national security and public order.

Still, no doubt helped by ongoing high-level bilateral dialogue, Chinese acquisitions in strategic areas continue to rise, reaching US$2.1 billion across the EU in the first quarter of 2020.

Some of the high-profile investments include Huawei’s US$220 million plan to construct a 5G mobile base station in France and Fosun’s US$280 million purchase of a long-standing German independent private bank with offices in New York and London.

European governments’ ongoing and constructive engagements with China are also mirrored at the level of the EU and China’s government. For instance, the European Commission set out a 10-point action plan in March, seeking a more balanced economic relationship with China.

On one hand, the programme entails active promotion of the EU’s industrial base and strengthening of policies to maintain the bloc’s social model and values. On the other, it places a high priority on deepening cooperation in relation to dealing with the pandemic and advancing multilateralism.

For example, the commission and Chinese authorities have cooperated in providing major financial aid for the World Health Organisation and separately voiced similar criticisms over the United States withdrawing from the institution.

China has also backed the commission’s initiative in ratifying the Arms Trade Treaty, an action which received commendations from the commission, particularly given the US having earlier reneged on its support for the treaty.

Meanwhile, the EU and China have continued multiple dialogues, including over areas of disagreement. In spite of significant policy differences, the two sides pursue robust exchanges in bridging one another’s opposing views.

With that interplay in mind, whatever the reasons behind the Johnson government’s sudden about-turn from the strategic partnership’s emphasis on political mutual trust and cooperation in favour of openly combative tactics, they may not be entirely accounted for by its desire to cleanse away 40 years of EU-dominated external relations.

Even so, it’s also not likely to be exclusively the outcome of influence being exerted out of Washington, either.