Will China-UK ties be hijacked by radical politicians like Farage?
Published: Jan 07, 2021 05:43 PM

Nigel Farage, leader of UK Brexit Party Photo: AFP

Nigel Farage, leader of UK Brexit Party, tweeted on the first day of 2021 that "stopping China is the next big battle to fight." He posted a video in which he articulated that his next campaign is to make people understand who China is and "make sure we are no longer dependent on China." The reason Farage spewed out a China comment is that he believes the Asian country is a "threat" to other parts of the world. 

His remarks provoked a question - whether the UK will join the US in decoupling from China?

Farage hardly represents the stance of mainstream British politicians. He only speaks for extreme forces in the country. And he has calculated ruse for his inflammatory rhetoric. As UK Independence Party's successor, the Brexit Party was launched in April 2019 to make sure that the UK leaves the EU. Brexit has been the party's one and only agenda. Now a formal divorce pact has been approved, it means the party's mission has been accomplished. It has very little significance for a future existence. Therefore, Farage started to hype up something else - China-related issues. 

As a fringe party, the Brexit Party led by Farage has been quite proactive over the Brexit issue. It has influenced British politics over the case and impacted the ultimate outcome. The UK's public opinion has always been skeptical over European integration. The EU has also suffered numerous problems itself. These have been utilized by forces like Farage to drive wedges instead of building bridges. Many observers once believed London was pragmatic, and it would not quit the EU. But it did. Farage played a role in it. 

Hence, when Brexit forces turn their spearhead toward China-UK ties, a question might seriously be raised - will the decoupling between Beijing and London advocated by Farage become the next mainstream topic in the UK, just like Brexit? This is worthy of attention. But it is far more complicated than mere European affairs. 

Traditionally, the UK has maintained pragmatic in ties with China. It has kept a balance between politics, ideological stances, and economic interests. Despite pressure from Washington, London once kept a distance from the latter's China policies. 

Unfortunately, this recently seems to be no longer the case. Given increasing US pressure, some British political forces have started to frequently smear China over issues ranging from the COVID-19 pandemic, Hong Kong, South China Sea, and Chinese tech giant Huawei. The balance is tilting away from reason, with pragmatism fading. 

However, the UK will have to face up to its difficulties in reality. The new virus variant is taking huge toll. A strict new national lockdown is in place. The country's already fragile economy is suffering from continuing pressure. It is having greater needs from industrial chains. Negotiations over the bilateral investment treaty between China and the EU have been completed. Now London is confronting new pressure: Its main economic partner is boosting relations with Beijing. Will the UK become isolated? What if negotiations over the free trade agreement with the US get more difficult after Joe Biden assumes office? 

Economically, the UK needs China. Politically, heading toward confrontations and ideologies does not conform to its tradition of maintaining a balanced diplomacy. That being said, it is hard for radical fringe politicians to take the initiative and negatively influence the China-UK relationship. 

Even in the past, the UK was affected very little by populism. Extreme voices were weak in its society. Radical words from Farage swayed Brexit matters. But if Farage and his party want more public support in other agendas, he will find the goal hard to achieve. 

The mind-set of most mainstream political parties and figures in the UK are not that ideological. Pragmatic forces in the country still have due weight. However, they speak less. Those who take an extreme and hard line toward China have become more and more proactive to lead public opinion. If the trend of public opinion cannot be steered properly, it will pose a risk to the long-term development of China-UK relations. It is time for rational and pragmatic ones to speak out. 

The author is professor from the British Studies Centre of Beijing Foreign Studies University. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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