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).
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.