UK-China ties at crossroads after Sunak announced end of 'golden era'
Ball in London’s court on reviving ties that are consequential for UK's development: experts
Published: Nov 29, 2022 09:00 PM Updated: Nov 29, 2022 11:30 PM
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak attends a session during the G20 Summit in Nusa Dua on the Indonesian resort island of Bali on November 16, 2022.Photo: AFP

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Photo: AFP

UK-China ties are now at a crossroads after UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced in his first foreign policy speech on Monday that the "golden era" of UK-China relations is over. Whether Sunak is continuing the status quo of "hot economics, cold politics," or is seeking to become more hawkish and shortsighted on his China policy remains to be seen, experts said.

The "golden era" was proposed by the UK at a time when British politicians eyed China as a good partner in UK's development. Yet incumbent UK leaders lack the same wisdom, with their chaotic China policies premised on nationalism, experts said. The ball is firmly in London's court when it comes to reviving the relationship that is still consequential for the UK's development, and the UK must resume pragmatic diplomacy and unhitch itself from other countries or small cliques for it to work.

In his Monday speech, Sunak said the closer economic ties of the previous decade had been "naïve." He also suggested a hardening of diplomatic relations and called China a "systemic challenge to our values and interests" while confirming the UK's defense and security strategy for the next decade would be updated in the new year, UK media reported.

Sunak also pointed his fingers at China's dynamic zero-COVID policy and accused Chinese law enforcers of "assaulting a BBC journalist." His irresponsible remarks were refuted by China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

He also criticized China on issues such as the Hong Kong SAR and the Xinjiang region. Sunak stopped short of calling China a threat, which was reportedly planned by his predecessor, Liz Truss, and he admitted that Western countries could not ignore China's influence on world affairs and its ability to help with the shared challenges such as economic stability and climate change.

In response, a spokesperson from the Chinese Embassy in the UK said the UK should not interfere in China's affairs, and its remarks on Hong Kong and Xinjiang are calling white black. The UK should retreat from its colonial mind-set. The spokesperson urged the UK to discard prejudice and stop smearing China, not dance to the US' tune or set obstacles in the way of developing China-UK relations. 

The phrase "golden era" is associated with closer economic ties between China and the UK under former British prime minister David Cameron in 2015, when Cameron had tried to free UK's future development from being limited to within the EU, and eyed cooperation with China as another engine for its development. 

Yet bilateral ties soured in recent years after the UK pulled itself out of the EU and leaned closer toward the US, serving as Washington's vassal in attacking China.

The golden era had already been affected when Boris Johnson took office in 2019, and the UK is the culprit of ending that friendly era, as China's plan of pushing forward ties has not changed, Cui Hongjian, director of the Department of European Studies at the China Institute of International Studies, told the Global Times on Tuesday.

After Brexit, the UK has been struggling to find its position in the world, as it is finding it hard to exert its influence independently. The country is also experiencing rising nationalism, which makes it more difficult to join hands with European countries, said Li Guanjie, a research fellow from the Shanghai International Studies Universit. He noted that as a result, the UK stands closer with the US.

"After Brexit, the UK's diplomacy is becoming more and more opportunistic and shortsighted," Cui said.

The UK has been placed in a bind in recent years, facing severe problems such as political turmoil and a sluggish economy. UK will be the second-weakest performer of the world's big economies next year as the global economy continues to suffer the knock-on effects of the biggest energy shock in four decades, the Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development said in a document published last week. 

Sunak, who took office only on October 25, is the UK's third prime minister in two months, after his predecessor Truss stepped down in just six weeks in 10 Downing Street, a turbulent period that saw a combination of rising interest rates, government action to bring down borrowing and debt and the market turmoil.  

Sunak's China policy is confusing, inconsistent and incoherent. He clearly realizes the importance of engagement with China, however he is locked in a quagmire by the need to appear tough domestically to his party and to face the pressure from the US. This actually gives him very little space to engage with China on reasonable or fair terms. In practice, his actions so far have been nothing short of being hostile. British foreign policy right now is fundamentally unstable because it is being premised on ideology and nationalism, and Sunak has limited control of that, Tom Fowdy, a British political and international relations analyst, told the Global Times on Tuesday. 

Chinese observers warned Sunak could slide into tougher China policy as UK's domestic anti-China sentiment is hyped by some rabble rousers. 

Ties at a crossroads 

Sunak's remarks that the golden era is over signals that he has placed China-UK ties at a crossroads, where the golden era is ended, and the future of the relationship remains murky, experts said. Li pointed out that despite the worsening ties, China-UK trade cooperation has seen steady growth, and he questioned whether Sunak really would seek to reverse that trend.

China is now the largest source of imports for the UK worth 63.6 billion pounds ($76.6 million) or 13.3 percent of all goods imports, according to statistics from the UK Office for National Statistics. There are about 144,000 Chinese students studying in Britain, according to the 2022 statistics from the Higher Education Statistics Authority, a number that is up 50 percent in just five years.

Despite calling the golden era over, Sunak also promised that UK and its allies' approach to China had to include "diplomacy and engagement." And he said the UK would be "standing up to our competitors, not with grand rhetoric but with robust pragmatism," in a swipe at Truss' hard-line stance.

The ball is in the UK's court to revive bilateral relations, and it is for the UK to first solve its domestic problems, resume its traditional pragmatic diplomacy and untie itself from certain countries or groups, Li said. 

The key to achieving that goal, Cui said, is for the UK to find its right place in the world stage amid a changing geopolitical situation, and properly handle its domestic as well as international challenges.