Last Thursday the 11th of February, the Chinese broadcast regulator shutdown the BBC World News and banned its operation in China. A tit for tat decision following the stripping of CGTN, a Chinese government — English language news channel, of its broadcast license by Ofcom a week previously.
These events are just the latest in an ongoing clash between The UK and China whose high point came in the form of a Cold war era-like news story broken by ‘The Times’ newspaper, that around 200 academics from a dozen universities are under investigation by the security services for assisting China, apparently unwittingly, in the development of aircraft, missiles and cyber capabilities. The last six months have seen British-Chinese relations spiral with the UK government banning Huawei technology from its communications infrastructure, issue an arms embargo, announce the deployment of a Carrier Strike Group to the South China Sea in support of Japan, open a special visa program for BNOs passport holders for which about half of the population Hong Kong is eligible for, and more recently announced that it will begin a blacklist register of Chinese suppliers whose products are made in labor camps.
These actions and others are due to a shift in the Conservative party that has seen Euro-skepticism be replaced by sino-skepticism, a notion that has taken the form of the ‘China research group’ — a new 70 MPs or so strong inner-party group. This group seeks to promote a British response in cultural, industrial, foreign and defence policy in order to contain the perceived rise of China. Just to think that a little over 5 years ago, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Chinese President Xi Jinping toasted the beginning a new friendship and a ‘golden age’ of economic relations between the two countries.
The Uk’s new hardline policy towards China is due to the work of a small group of senior Conservative ministers and MPs, who to name a few includes Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab — initiator of the blacklist, Home Secretary Priti Patel – promoter and executor of the special visa program, MP Tom Tugendhat – Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and leader of the China research group (CRG), and MP Tobias Ellwood – Chairman of the Defence Committee. Alongside them, there are figures who dabble more in the field of ideological debate and ideas, such as long time MP and former party leader Ian Duncan Smith – founding member of the ‘Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China’ and its co-chair in the UK, and MP Bob Seeley – a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee who has authored a number of research and policy papers in association with the Neo-Conservative think tank “Henry Jackson Society”.
On the other hand, the British government does not seem committed in its entirety to this new hardline policy towards China, and therefore it has a desire to lower the flames before the clash spirals further and turns into a full-blown diplomatic and economic confrontation. For example, on the 8th of february ‘The Telegraph’ newspaper revealed that on an undisclosed date of 2020, the British security service had caught three Chinese spies who were subsequently and quietly expelled. Another example is the tremendous efforts the government made on the 9th and the 10th, to prevent its MPs from voting in favour of an amendment that would allow British courts to hear genocide cases brought against foreign governments. This amendment would have empowered the courts, if they had found that genocide has indeed been or is being committed, to impose restrictions on or outright ban trade relations with Britain. There is no doubt that the Chinese Government’s oppression, persecution and claimed ethnic cleansing of the Chinese Uyghur populations, was on the British government’s mind at the time. Its efforts succeeded and the amendment was defeated for the price of cutting down the government’s majority to a slim 318 to 303 and alienating its backbenchers.
You may be asking yourself where is the PM Boris Johnson in all of this? Well in cases where No. 10 Downing St is more directly involved we see the more moderate steps, such as the outside the media spotlight handling of three Chinese spies and burying a popular initiative to grant judicial authority to handle genocide cases. If that is indeed the case that Johnson is behind the less confrontational actions of the UK towards China, then the British foreign policy that we are witnessing is a noncoherent one, that is pursued with no guiding government strategy, and is an accumulation of sporadic actions initiated and coordinated by a few proactive political actors, acting without the involvement of the captain of the ship of state – Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Following the UK exiting the EU, a question arose as to which path it would take in terms of foreign policy, with three main paths in mind. One was joining the European camp led by Germany and France, which in a recent interview to ‘The Guardian’ newspaper Emanuel Macron conveyed a clear message that the UK would indeed be a welcome member. The second was joining the American camp that is under reorganization following the election of Joe Biden to the Presidency. The third was that the UK would join the group of the quiet countries of the world regarding foreign policy, such as Switzerland and Singapore.
The overall hardline policy towards China appears to indicate that the UK will choose the fourth path, establishing a ‘camp’ of its own. This camp would be composed of a core of countries with which it has a deep historical friendship and that has backed and joined its various actions towards China in the recent months — Australia, New Zealand and Canada. In which case Johnson would be remembered as a major defence and foreign policy-oriented prime minister, whose legacy will influence and shape Britain’s place in the world for years to come. Who ironically is not leading but rather being led on this path.