Rishi Sunak’s hawkish antagonization of Beijing has not gone unnoticed, despite his recent softening
Since the conclusion of China’s 20th Communist Party Congress, Xi Jinping has been on a diplomatic blitzkrieg. He’s met with leaders from countries all over the world, including the German chancellor, the French president and even US President Joe Biden himself. He’s keeping up the momentum as New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has received an invitation to visit Beijing. China believes that diplomacy is critical to prevent the US from isolating it.
But one important country has thus far been left on the sidelines – the United Kingdom. A meeting between Xi Jinping and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, scheduled at the UK’s request during the recent G20 summit, was cancelled. It came just as Sunak, at least superficially, softened his rhetoric on Beijing and sought to re-engage, after having portrayed himself as an ultra-hawk during the leadership contest at home. He even scrapped Liz Truss’s designation of Beijing as a “security threat” to his country.
But that hasn’t saved him from Beijing’s wrath. China is getting tough on Britain, in a similar way to how it did on Scott Morrison’s Australia. While the impasse with Canberra ended with the election of Antony Albanese as Prime Minister, who is more pragmatic in handling China ties, Beijing now sees London as the one playing the role of the “insufferable poodle” of the US, and will likely deliberately block engagement until it changes course.
Out of all allies of the United States, China is especially wary of what is known as “The Anglosphere” or the “Five Eyes” – That is Australia, Canada, New Zealand (although not these days) and the United Kingdom. These Anglophone countries, direct products of the British Empire, are the states which are most invested in American hegemony and closest to the United States in terms of ideology and worldview. While Continental European nations may to varying degrees differentiate themselves from the US, the Anglosphere nations are “true believers” in the US cause.
Hence, when the US invaded Iraq, it was the UK and Australia who answered the call, just to cite one instance. China therefore naturally sees members of the Five Eyes with geopolitical suspicion. Additionally, Beijing does not see them as truly “sovereign” countries or as equals to itself, but rather as US vassals. However, it has to balance this with the reality that all of these countries are critical economic and trade partners, due to their accumulated wealth and market influence. In which case, China’s geopolitical objectives is not to treat these countries as adversaries, but to use a very explicit “carrot and stick” mode of diplomacy whereby it punishes them for “bad behaviour” in following the US too closely on the one hand, but rewards them for deeper bilateral engagement on the other.
And there is no more explicit example of this ongoing right now than the contrast between China deepening its engagement with New Zealand and shutting out the United Kingdom. When Beijing deems that a leader of an Anglosphere state, such as Scott Morrison of Australia, or Rishi Sunak of the UK, is too deeply following the United States, then there is absolutely no point in engaging them because the fundamental decisions are being made in Washington and not their respective capitals. The metric of right-wing populism, when these respective leaders are actively demonizing China for domestic political gain, is also a ‘naughty step’ offense. Only the US has the political privilege and power to be able to demonize Beijing, but still get engagement with it, hence why America is able to provoke China and never receive the reactions which smaller nations get from China.
This is how Beijing tries to “dilute” American power. The US itself is never confronted, but those who follow Washington too closely are. And on this, China has caught Sunak off guard. Beijing tolerated the government of Boris Johnson because he described himself as a “Sinophile” determined to improve ties with China. Sunak, however, used antagonism of China for partisan gain. The Prime Minister has since moderated his rhetoric and spoken about “keeping ties open,” believing that his spree of anti-China hyperbole, as well as a recent Ministerial visit to Taiwan, would simply be brushed off and that Beijing would welcome him with open arms. He was wrong, and Beijing is now showing that when it is not about the US, engagement with China is conditional on “good behaviour.”
China also recognizes the UK economy is weak, and as loath as London is to admit it, the UK needs ties with China. Inflation is surging, industrial unrest is picking up, chancellor Jeremy Hunt says the country is already in a state of recession. In which case, Beijing is exploiting these vulnerabilities and, similar to Australia, it will place a number of “demands” on Britain which will become pre-requisites to normalization again, which usually involve respecting Beijing’s position on Taiwan and not following the US agenda.
However, whether this works is another story. In the case of Australia, Scott Morrison’s government did not change course, and it simply became the case that China had to wait him out before re-engaging with his successor. That could very much be the case here too. Britain has ultimately made the choice to follow the US on China, even when those policies prove to be blatantly self-defeating, as is the case with the Newport Wafer Fab. Nonetheless, if Sunak is trying to be pragmatic, this should be a reality check for him.