Five years ago George Osborne, then chancellor, promised a golden decade for Sino-British relations. The sheen was always deceptive, and the decade has ended prematurely. In April, Dominic Raab remarked that there could be no return to business as usual. Now the foreign secretary’s rhetoric is translating into reality, with indications that the government is preparing to turn its back on Huawei as a 5G supplier.
The fundamental reassessment of relations with China by western countries is becoming more explicit. That Beijing will retaliate to such shifts is equally evident. On Thursday it warned Australia of unspecified consequences for offering Hongkongers a pathway to permanent residence; Canberra’s latest travel advice for China cautions its citizens that they could be arbitrarily detained. But Britain is also taking the heat over Huawei’s future and the offer of potential citizenship to Hong Kong residents. This week, Beijing’s ambassador to London, Liu Xiaoming, warned: “China wants to be UK’s friend and partner. But if you treat China as a hostile country, you would have to bear the consequences.”
The international change has been driven to some degree by the US turn against China, and its keenness to make others pick a side. But it is above all the result of Beijing’s own actions. Its handling of the coronavirus outbreak, its crackdown in Hong Kong, the deadly clash on the India-China border and confrontational “wolf warrior” diplomacy have all forced other countries to think again: “The last six months have revealed more about China under President Xi Jinping than the previous six years,” the former MI6 chief Sir John Sawers wrote recently.
This is not convincing. Beijing has gone further, faster, than anyone expected. But it is over a year since the extradition bill sparked protests in Hong Kong, while 2018 saw reports of up to a million Muslim Uighurs being held in camps in Xinjiang, the abolition of presidential term limits, and the detention of two Canadians, effectively taken hostage over their country’s arrest (on a US extradition request) of a top Huawei executive. China took a clear turn towards increasing internal repression and external forcefulness well before Mr Osborne’s declaration of a golden era.
Britain and others decided this was not a priority when there was Chinese wealth to be pursued, and their citizens appeared unaffected. To acknowledge this is not about idle retrospection, or attributing blame, but about avoiding the mistakes of the past.
Those include a lack of solidarity as well as wishful thinking. China has played other nations off against each other. It looks increasingly ruthless in exploiting weakness and isolation. The inconsistent and trade-determined approach of the Trump administration is exacerbating the problem. There is a bumpy road ahead, and post-Brexit Britain will struggle to traverse it alone.