The Brexit war is still being waged in the halls of Parliament and Brussels, but it seems there is a new brand of hawk emerging, the China Hawk. This being is skeptical of China and wishes for a reset in relations with the growing world power, as such, a question must be asked as to whether Chinaskepticism is the new Europskepticism.
Despite Prime Minister Boris Johnson reaffirming his desire to keep working with China on issues such as climate change and trade (especially in light of Brexit), the government has made U-Turns on several issues such as Hong Kong and 5G after a sustained pressure campaign from both the US and its own MPs. The pressure for a reset is likely to grow as time continues, especially with the public seemingly leaning more toward distrust of China than support.
However, the skeptics are not united in how they want relations to be reset. There are some who want the UK to take a case by case approach (sound familiar?), as it has with Huawei and Hong Kong. Yet with China’s aggression in the South China Sea becoming more of a sore thumb for British allies, and with China’s human rights abuses skyrocketing, there are a growing number of hard liners in the Tory party who want a hard line to be taken.
MPs such as Bob Seely believe that a complete reset is needed and that anything less than that would undermine Britain’s stances on several issues including defence. Others such as Ian Duncan Smith believe that a new strategy that is as impactful as former PM David Cameron’s Bloomberg Speech-which set the tone for the Brexit referendum- is what is needed to ensure things go as straight as possible. With many claiming they are prepared to fight tooth and nail on every single vote relating to China, just as Brexiteers did over the EU.
With policy battles over China’s role in the UK’s nuclear industry, Chinese tech firm ByteDance and their plans for a London headquarters approaching, it is likely that China hawks are going to push for their own version of the ‘Magnitsky Sanction’ on officials involved in the crackdown in Hong Kong and the ongoing incarceration of Muslims in Xinjiang. All of which is likely to lead to questions about what exactly is prompting Johnson’s sinophilia.
Some have argued that Johnson’s alleged sinophilia comes from his experience as mayor of London. In 2008, Johnson visited Beijing for the Olympic handover ceremony, met the city’s mayor and briefly tried to court investors for a new London airport. Given China’s rise into superpower status at the time whilst the West was plunging into an economic crisis, one could see why China would fascinate Johnson-a noted classicist and civilisation aficionado- the size and scale of China’s civilisation and history was inevitably going to happen, it could be argued.
Johnson’s sinophilia seemed to reach its peak during a 2013 visit with George Osborne, where he urged more Britons to learn Mandarin and also joked about getting investment in the London Port Authority, something that would be unimaginable now.
Of course, there are also practical reasons for Boris Johnson refusing to give into his hardliners, mainly that with Brexit going into a tailspin, Britain will need trade partners and will need investors if it wishes to lead the so called ‘fourth industrial revolution.’ China is one of the premier economic powers in the world today, and whilst the US is on the decline, it would be foolish for the UK to completely alienate China, whilst so much uncertainty remains over Washington’s future.
Ultimately though, China skepticism may well become its own animal, as the realities of geopolitics come home to roost, leaving the UK needing to make a choice between principle and reality.