UK-China relations: still a role for Britain?

By Tim Collard
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, April 27, 2017
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A freight train from Yiwu City in east China's Zhejiang Province, arrives in Barking, east London, Britain, on Jan. 18, 2017. After its 18-day journey, the first freight train from China to Britain arrived in London on Wednesday. [Xinhua file photo] 

No one in Britain can really deny that the status of the U.K. in the modern world is not what it used to be.

Yet, it retains some important cards, principally permanent membership of the U.N. Security Council. It is also true, though less so than formerly, that Britain's closeness to the U.S. enables her to act in some sense as an intermediary when American relations with other countries reach an impasse.

Now, impeding exit from the E.U. means it must cultivate friendships and partnerships elsewhere.

It was in this spirit that China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his British counterpart Boris Johnson, remembered in China for his appearance as Mayor of London at the 2008 Olympic closing ceremony, held a lengthy telephone conversation last week to discuss issues of common interest.

The subsequent communiqué revealed the principal topic of conversation involved the most acute security issues currently facing the world – the situation in Syria and the problems concerning China's neighbor, the North Korea.

In addition, both ministers expressed their desire for a deepening of bilateral relations, being accorded the status of a "global comprehensive strategic partnership" against a backdrop of the 45th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1972.

Such warm words will have been most welcome to the British side.

On both the aforementioned topics, U.S. President Trump has expressed a wish for decisive action, to the extent of launching an air strike on a Syrian air base to coincide exactly with his meeting in Florida with President Xi Jinping.

Britain's traditional role at times of international tension has been to try to exert a calming influence on American pursuit of an energetic foreign policy, and, at this precise moment, this coincides exactly with China's wish to avoid a heightening of rhetoric. In particular, the heightening of tension as a result of Pyongyang's recent attempts at missile tests and the exchange of threats between the North Korea and the U.S., need to be addressed.

The two Ministers have so far established a harmonious relationship. They met at the G20 Foreign Ministers' meeting in Bonn in February, agreeing to develop a multi-faceted relationship and enhance the "Golden Era" of Sino-U.K. relations announced by President Xi in 2015.

Both sides will respect the other's "core interests" – the British committed itself to continued upholding of the one-China policy and the "One Country, Two System" policy regarding Hong Kong. Johnson made it clear that, despite a considerable degree of political uncertainty regarding the future direction of the U.K., there would be no movement on the central pillars of the U.K.-China relationship.

Britain really cannot afford more uncertainty, especially in relations with a major power. Flagship cooperation projects, such as the proposed Chinese financing for the Hinkley Point Nuclear Power Plant, will be proactively advanced. Both Britain and China remain committed to safeguarding the global free trade system and to building an open world economy.

It is clear that Britain greatly values her greatly improved relationship with China. The interesting question is to what extent, given Britain's reduced circumstances, it will be able to give any real practical help on the security front in the world's principal trouble spots.

The telephone conservation last week indicates Britain can be relied on to do what she can to keep the peace and bring about a more interlocked world structured around mutual benefits rather than rivalry. Yet, how much will that be in practice?

Firstly, the presence of another Permanent Member of the UN Security Council prepared to work alongside China to reduce tensions in Syria and the Korean peninsula, both potentially leading to disastrous great-power confrontations, cannot but be of assistance. Britain may lack hard power, but the soft power of influence and a network of relationships deriving from decades of active and assiduous diplomacy still count for something.

Secondly, Britain is one of the leading supporters of the new style of Chinese economic diplomacy, involving the furthering of solid infrastructural links along which mutually beneficial trade and investment can flow to an increasingly interlinked world.

The vote in favor of "Brexit" last June requires the U.K. to re-orientate her economic policy along her traditional maritime lines, and to activate her traditional worldwide trade routes, a policy creating a perfect fit with China's current approach.

Therefore, Britain, while recognizing it is no longer a world power, believes it can still play a useful part in safeguarding the peace and prosperity of the world, in partnership with the growing power of China, thus "punching above its weight," as the old phrase states.

Tim Collard is a columnist with For more information please visit:

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of

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