The PM will lead a delegation to China on Wednesday. With Brexit Britain desperate for trade, it’s time we got down to brass tacksby George Magnus / January 30, 2018 / Leave a comment
On Wednesday, Theresa May will lead her first UK delegation to China, following in the footsteps of her Chancellor Philip Hammond late last year. Liu Xiaoming, China’s Ambassador to the UK, told the Xinhua news agency recently that the purpose is to “push forward the Golden Era for bilateral ties.”
Yet that phrase “Golden Era,” invoked by David Cameron in 2015 and now deployed in peacock-like fashion by UK politicians “as we leave the European Union,” is a misnomer. The UK is very much the minor partner and supplicant in the relationship.
As if to highlight this, it was reported two days ago that previously agreed commercial deals with the UK, and the prime minister’s planned business meetings in China, might be at risk because the UK had not formally endorsed China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI is Xi Jinping’s most important international relations strategy, designed to cement China’s influence over Asia, the Middle East and beyond. Only last week a US Congressional hearing was warned by experts about the threat the BRI posed to the western world. Perhaps the PM and Donald Trump exchanged words on this at their Davos meeting.
Sino-UK relations are, in any event, now a mirror image of history. The British are “bigging up” the opportunity to do more trade and commercial business with China, much as they did when King George III sent Lord Macartney to the court of the Qianlong emperor in 1793. But back then the dynamic was very different. The mission’s purpose was to demand China open its coastal cities, ports and markets up to trade, establish an official permanent mission in Peking, and extend the reach of the British Empire. The Chinese weren’t impressed.
The British would eventually open China up by force, initiating two Opium Wars. The Chinese have never forgotten, and see Britain as a key player in what they call “the century of humiliation” (roughly 1840 to 1947), which sits as a warning from the past in Xi Jinping’s “Great Rejuvenation” of China. In 2018, of course, the boot is on the other foot, and the irony is not lost in Beijing. Brexit Britain is looking for recognition and favour, but as a petitioner, not a major power.…