Change of UK leadership would have greater impact on China than expected

By Chris Dalby Source:Global Times Published: 2015-5-4 20:33:01

China has not paid much attention to the UK election on May 7, instead remaining fixated on the US election many months away. According to a recent piece in the Guardian tracking the international preferences for the election, the belief among Chinese analysts is that any change in London will not affect China-UK relations. But this is deceptive.

While both parties, Labour and Conservatives, would maintain economic ties with China, they have different approaches to the EU, to free trade, to immigration, all areas that are of great concern to China.

First of all, would stability and continuity be a good thing? After all, Prime Minister David Cameron has had five years to forge close ties with the Chinese leadership during a number of bilateral visits. This would be particularly true for his connection to Chinese Premier Li Keqiang ,who was first welcomed by Cameron to the UK in 2011. However, while most Western leaders have had spats with China, Cameron has been more argumentative than most.

In 2010, fresh after his arrival to Downing Street, Cameron played a curious double-sided game with Beijing. On the one hand, he wanted his first diplomatic visit to Beijing to be one of trade deals and business development. On the other, wanting to show his statesmanship chops, he chose to admonish Beijing about human rights and encourage the adoption of multi-party democracy.

Since then, the relationship has been convoluted at best. In 2011, seeking to make up for his errors, Cameron invited Li to the UK, showing off its greatest assets from English technology to Scottish manufacturing and Welsh wool. However, his damage control did not go according to plan.

In 2012, Cameron became persona non grata in China after meeting the Dalai Lama, which led Chancellor George Osborne to fly to Beijing for some damage control. Since then, the relationship has improved, but the Chinese government is unlikely to value stability with a government that has been so contradictory in its China policies.

Furthermore, Cameron's barmy notions in other areas have also endangered London's ties with Beijing. While he welcomes foreign investment, foreign students are not so desirable. Chinese students have flooded British universities in recent years, bringing with them much needed tuition fees, but with it now being far more difficult for them to get a temporary residence or working visa, after graduation, future crops of Chinese high schoolers might go elsewhere

While Britain likes to hark back to its past importance, its trading power is bolstered by being within the EU. As a bloc, it is among China's most important trading partners. Outside of it, the UK would quickly dwindle in importance among other Chinese investment priorities. 

On the EU, it is clear that Labour and the Conservatives could not be more different. The current government has pledged an in or out referendum while Labour has not yet stated whether they would organize such a poll.

On climate change, Cameron has not taken the steps once promised, supporting emission reductions while being on the lam about precise commitments. In contrast, Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour party, has supported more sweeping reforms, in line with China. However, whether these reforms happen if he takes office remains to be seen.

Nevertheless, on the human rights front, the situation would be unlikely to improve with Miliband in Downing Street. Under former prime minister Tony Blair's leadership, Labour had a dismal human rights track record, a reputation which Miliband is likely to try and change by targeting China.

Therefore, the choice is drastic. Would China prefer the changeable, unpredictable devil it knows or the as-of-yet morally righteous but untested devil it doesn't?

The author is editorial director of Mexico Business Publishing.

Posted in: Viewpoint

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