GT Voice: Pragmatic trade ties with UK must follow one-China principle
Published: Aug 31, 2023 11:11 PM
Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

As UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly paid a long-anticipated visit to China on Wednesday, the British parliament for the first time referred to the Taiwan island as an "independent country" in a report published on the same day, casting further shadows on China-UK relations.

Cleverly is the first senior British minister to visit China in five years, a trip that is widely seen as a signal to repair ties with China. But the UK parliament's report blatantly infringed on China's sovereignty over the Taiwan question, which also complicated the meaning of Cleverly's visit.

There are many signs that the British government's approach toward China appears to be changing. When hitting back at criticism of his China visit, Cleverly said his government wants to reset the relationship with Beijing, working with China on issues such as climate change and habitat protection, while bolstering economic ties within the constraints of national security, warning that failure to engage with China would be a sign of weakness.

The apparent pragmatism of Western politicians is not just because China has played an important role in everything from climate change to the global economy and supply chains, but also because the UK has pressing political and economic needs of its own. The decline in its international influence and poor economic performance has become a fait accompli since Brexit. To lift the UK economy from its current predicament amid a global slowdown, engagement and cooperation with the Chinese market seem inevitable.

Yet, whatever resistance or domestic divisions the British government is facing in trying to repair relations with China, there's no reason for its politicians to use the Taiwan question to violate the one-China principle. 

While Cleverly's visit this week may open new opportunities for the development of China-UK relations and the warming of bilateral economic ties, the UK's repeated challenging of China's core interests over the Taiwan question will undoubtedly be an important factor affecting the stability of the relationship.

In addition to the latest report from the UK parliament, the UK government announced in late July that the UK will co-host the 26th annual "UK-Taiwan Trade Talks" with the Taiwan island later this year, and will start talks on an "Enhanced Trade Partnership" with the region in due course. 

The decision, disregarding the fact that China strongly opposes official interactions of any form between China's Taiwan region and countries that have diplomatic relations with China, is a clear violation of the one-China principle and its own commitment to maintain only unofficial relations with the island, according to a statement from the Chinese Embassy in Britain.

If anything, the situation shows that there is a gap in the understanding of pragmatic cooperation between the two countries, and it may take more tortuous efforts to bring bilateral economic ties back on track. 

The West has been accustomed to trampling on China's sovereignty while groundlessly accusing China of "economic coercion." From China's perspective, the pursuit of pragmatic cooperation means that a country cannot trample on China's bottom line while developing economic and trade relations with China. However, from the Western perspective, separating political and economic issues is pragmatic, that is, these countries can provoke China's core interest over the Taiwan question, and China is supposed to maintain economic relations as usual. Yet, when they use politics as a tool to put pressure on China, isn't it ridiculous for them to think that the foundation of economic ties remains intact?

Fundamentally speaking, the UK's current China policy is clearly following the US. If the Sunak government cannot recognize what is really important to its China policy, it will be hard to repair bilateral ties with a single visit to China.