As China presses ahead with its controversial Belt and Road initiative, international attitudes towards the country hardenby Shashank Joshi / February 13, 2018 / Leave a comment
Theresa May returned from her January trip to Beijing on a sour note. Her visit is part of a larger pattern of hardening European attitudes towards China’s economic and geopolitical ambitions.
Officials in the UK and China have spent recent years heralding a supposed “golden age.” In March 2015, George Osborne and David Cameron took the surprise decision to make the UK a founding member of the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), prompting an apoplectic response from American officials. A lavish state visit to the UK by Xi Jinping followed later that year.
But the tide is now turning. Theresa May marked her first month in office by delaying plans for a Chinese-built power plant at Hinkley Point C. She allowed the deal to pass a few months later, but only after making it clear that she did not trust China to wield influence over British energy supplies. Now, during her recent trip to Beijing, she seems to have drawn another line in the sand, refusing to formally endorse China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a $4trn collection of connectivity and infrastructure projects stretching from Asia to Europe. The scheme, announced in 2013, touches every aspect of Chinese foreign policy and was even written into the Communist Party’s constitution in October.
With May’s government teetering on the edge and the UK confronting a future adrift from its major trading partners, this was a brave decision. Chinese officials, hoping that May would become the first G7 head of state to endorse their flagship project, unsubtly turned the screws—according to one report, even refusing to return British diplomats’ phone calls. But the prime minister stood firm. She kept open the possibility of cooperation, but demanded that BRI meet “international standards,” implying it doesn’t do so at present. Cameron will have taken particular notice: in December, he accepted a role as head of a $1bn UK-China investment fund backed by both governments.
Theresa May’s cautious approach is likely to have been informed by wider international shifts. When China held the (unfortunately named) Belt and Road Forum (BARF) last May, it attracted a glittering cast of visitors, including 29 world leaders, the heads of the United Nations, World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and even a senior official…