China visit may help May weather Brexit storm

By Wang Xiaoguang Source:Global Times Published: 2018/2/1 19:18:40

UK Prime Minister Theresa May visits China from Wednesday to Friday, a long-expected tour since she took office. Under the banner of the "golden era" of Sino-British relations, May's visit has naturally created expectations on both sides.

Economic ties are a key issue on both sides. While struggling for a more favorable deal in Brexit negotiations with calculative EU politicians in Brussels, May will have more leeway in the negotiations if she inks fruitful agreements with China, one of the UK's increasingly significant trade and investment partners. In fact, the two sides on Wednesday signed a dozen of deals over fields including trade, finance, healthcare and smart city.

In addition, China is undergoing a critical economic transition when it needs technology and skills from the developed world to progress. The UK's traditional advantages such as technical innovation system, sophisticated manufacturing, energy, environment protection and efficient finance services are dovetailed with Chinese economic demand.

Of course, there are several points that might dampen the prospects of the visit. First, it is still the Brexit. China is observing Brexit talks and the UK's role in Europe in the post-divorce period. By the recent warm reception to French President Emmanuel Macron, China is sending an explicit signal that it wishes to find one European partner which can influence the EU and lead European integration. However, Brexit undermines the UK in this regard.

Second, how the UK's diplomacy turns out after Brexit is another dimension to be watched for the future of Sino-UK relations. For the UK, China could be an alternative to the EU, but not the only alternative.

Relations with the so-called Anglo-American world have a higher priority for May's vision of a "global Britain." If the UK therefore follows the US and other Western countries to join economic alliances that target China, Sino-UK relations will suffer.

This concern could be realistic, given recent tensions between China and Australia and the US' strategic shift in its China policy. Similarly, the UK's relations with other Asian countries matter too.

Third, although the UK can gain some autonomy in policy-making after the Brexit, it is not certain that the May administration will be able to turn the autonomy into concrete economic cooperation with China.

May is more conservative than her predecessor David Cameron on British economic engagements with China, particularly in responding to Beijing's investments in the UK and the Belt and Road initiative. This question could be more severe when the UK joins its Western partners to concern the political implication and transparency of Chinese economic diplomacy.

Finally, human rights and Hong Kong issues in Sino-British relations cannot be ignored. The UK has been historically more active than its European counterparts on these issues. May has to strike a careful balance between bowing to domestic pressure and bringing up these issues with China, especially when economic issues are intertwined.

Sino-British cooperation has solid foundation, which is embedded in the respective economic structures. However, with Brexit and the change in the global economic landscape, new risks emerge in economic relations between China and Britain. May's visit is full of opportunities and risks.

The author is a PhD from Free University of Berlin and an assistant professor at the China University of Petroleum (Beijing).

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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