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Aug 8, 2016

The Guardian | Opinion | China Opinion - August 8, 2016: Britain Has Struck Out a Special Relationship With China. If Only We Knew The Way, by Tania Branigan

Tania Branigan

Less than a year ago, George Osborne boasted of a “golden decade” in ties with China. It was grand rhetoric for a cobbled together package of red carpet visits, a problematic nuclear energy project and deals like the £45m agreement to export the UK’s finest pig semen. But even the cynics didn’t expect the shine to come off quite so quickly.
Britain has just blindsided Beijing twice: through its shock announcement that the centrepiece nuclear project is on hold, pending a fresh review, and by voting to leave the European Union.
The swift reversal on Hinkley Point C epitomises the dilemma posed by China’s ascendance. Other countries dutifully talk about partnership and win-win pacts, and there has been real progress on areas such as climate change. But for the most part, they have found themselves torn between the lure of the world’s second largest economy and their alarm at its might – its increasing influence and assertiveness, its authoritarian leadership, nationalism and hefty military investments, and its desire to reset the rules, as rising powers usually do. Tony Abbott said privately while he was Australia’s prime minister that his country’s China policy was driven by “fear and greed”. He could have spoken for many of his counterparts.
When Osborne took charge of China policy, ushering through the deal for investment in the French-built nuclear plant, greed took the lead. Some of the steps were sensible and even admirable – seeking cooperation on a space programme; leading support for Beijing’s new development bank in the face of churlish US opposition. But Britain’s hushed response in a string of cases showed that despite the lip service to human rights they were “not one of our top priorities … the prosperity agenda is further up the list”, as a top official conceded of foreign policy in general.
Though Theresa May’s spokesman says the UK will still seek a strong relationship – China National Nuclear Corporation was yesterday revealed to be on a government list of those deemed eligible to develop small modular reactors – the prime minister’s instincts appear fearful. She reportedly expressed “severe reservations” about getting too close, and her joint chief-of-staff has previously raised concerns that the Chinese could build weaknesses into nuclear projects allowing them to shut down energy production. There is a more obvious reason to ditch the plant: its questionable technology and excessive price tag. Analysts suggest that should relations deteriorate to a point where China might contemplate turning the lights out, we would probably have bigger problems to deal with anyway.
Still, the US, for example, has been much more cautious, mindful perhaps that China has a variable safety record and a culture of cover-up. On Hinkley Point, says Nigel Inkster of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and formerly of MI6, the risks “are ultimately manageable if you are prepared to acknowledge they exist”.
Though Beijing’s response so far has been muted, it will not have appreciated the embarrassingly last-minute nature of the Hinkley rethink, and the airing of suspicions about Chinese intentions. If the nuclear project is ditched for good, it is likely to be much more vocal.
Four years ago, it punished us in retaliation for David Cameron’s meeting with the Dalai Lama. High-level visits halted and state media trolled the UK as “merely a country of old Europe suitable only for tourism and overseas students, with a few decent football teams”. But trade still went up and Beijing still approached London to initiate projects. It knew we had our uses. Osborne understood the importance of China’s power better than most. But he wasted our own, albeit waning, influence.
Britain is still boosted by the legacy of our empire, such as our permanent seat on the security council. Until recently, we offered China a gateway to Europe and a voice inside it, lobbying against anti-dumping rules, for example.
China’s own economic woes mean that entrepreneurs are looking outwards, and Beijing wants to diversify its foreign holdings away from dollars. Britain still looks like a fairly safe bet if you want a decent return on investment; that’s why Chinese companies own Weetabix, a slice of Thames Water and, as of Friday, West Bromwich Albion FC. More may come in search of post-Brexit bargains. Our soft power is born not just of Jane Austen, James Watt and Benedict Cumberbatch, but also our political, legal and economic culture, for all its flaws.
China has tried and failed to buy its way to soft power. The Hinkley Point project was in large part about borrowing our reputation – showing that we trusted the China General Nuclear Power Corporation not only to cooperate on the EDF plant, but more importantly to design and build its own reactors at Bradwell in Essex, with a view to further overseas deals.
For the leadership, the Hinkley delay and the manner of its announcement will reinforce the conviction that democracy is not only a threat to their power, but also a bad, unpredictable, even irresponsible way of running a country. It is perhaps even more dismayed by Brexit. We have lost a large part of our value to it; and at the same time lost the strength in numbers we enjoyed in dealing with it.
The prospect of a bilateral trade agreement compensating for Brexit-induced economic woes seems slim, even putting aside the years it would take to thrash out a deal, with experienced negotiators in short supply. We need China more than ever, and have less to offer them; especially since other advantages – the City of London, world-class universities – have to deal with the impact of Brexit too.
The price for Osborne’s unabashed embrace of China has been our credibility, at a time when we need it most. The relegation of human rights told Beijing that we would cave if pressed hard enough on an issue. It undermined Chinese activists and lawyers, made it tougher for other countries to tackle the issueand bolstered the argument that western concerns for rights are selective (which is often true) and another way of attacking it (which is not).
That is a practical issue for the UK as well as a moral one. While Hinkley Point was dominating front pages, news from China garnered less attention: the trials of human rights lawyers, part of a sweeping crackdown on civil society and dissenting voices. Zhou Shifeng, jailed for seven years for subversion, had represented families hit by the scandal of melamine-tainted milk powder which killed six infants and sickened 300,000, partly because of a cover-up by the firm and local officials, and self-censorship by journalists who feared retaliation.
It is Zhou, and people like him, who have sought to promote the rule of law and accountability: things we should also wish to see prioritised there. Osborne and co pleased China’s leadership when they rowed back on human rights, but they sold its citizens short – and Britain too.
They pursued their strategy without sufficient thought, adequate consideration of the repercussions or a deep enough understanding of our potential partners – at a time when Beijing has displayed increasing hostility to western ideas and a tougher approach to western businesses. The prime minister should learn from Osborne’s focus on China, without adopting his unalloyed enthusiasm, but her job has been made much harder by his compromises.