Authors: Zhou Dong-chen and Du Hui-yan

A
lthough Brexit was already a fait accompli, the British chancellor Philip Hammond has called for closer economic ties with China as Britain enters a new post-Brexit era. As early as in 2015 when Chinese President Xi Jin-ping made his first state visit to the United Kingdom, which ushered a “golden age” to bilateral relations, the two great powers declared their consensus in working together with all Belt and Road project partners.

Later, Prime Minister Theresa May further indicated that Belt and Road Initiative would create a productive and prospective platform for the two sides’ cooperation. Following that, Britain became the first major Western power to joint as a full member of the AIIB and the second largest contributor after China to inject capital into the AIIB special fund. As Chinese ambassador Liu Xiao-ming said recently, “these moves speak to British people of daring to take lead and Britain’s farsightedness and truly global vision. Given this, speaking at the start of a summit in Beijing celebrating President Xi’s “Belt & Road Initiative, Hammond heaped praise on his hosts and stated that Britain was a “natural partner” for China as it pushed ahead with a massive infrastructure campaign some called the most ambitious plan in history. As this year marks the 45th anniversary of China – UK ambassadorial diplomatic relations, it is necessary to explore the significance of the Sino-Britain co-operation for the reasons as follows in the context of the post- Brexit era.

Historically, Britain was the first global power in modern history in a sense that so far there have been 1/3 population or most states of the world taking English either as their official language or use it as a required business, commercial and legal language. China is no exception. Also because Britain was one of the four foreign powers profoundly affecting China’s modern destiny along with the United States, Russia (The Soviet Union) and Japan, the rise of China has been driven by the combined forces of its ancient glory and modern shame. Although on opposing sides of the Cold War, both countries were allies during World War II, and are members of the United Nations and permanent members of the UN Security Council. Actually, Britain is the also first major power of the West recognizing the P.R.C. as the government of China in 1950 and posted a charge d’ affaires ad interim in Beijing from 1954 until 1972 when China accords full recognition to HMG, permitting the exchange of ambassadors. Despite the vicissitudes of the Cold War politics, various efforts were made to facilitate understanding from both parties through trade and governmental visits. For example, in 1954 a British Labour Party delegation including Clement Attlee visited China at the invitation of Premier Zhou Enlai, followed by the Sino-British trade committee formed as semi-official trade body (later merged with the Group of 48). From 1961 on, the UK began to vote in the General Assembly for Beijing’s seat in the UN, though it had abstained on votes since 1950. Given this, China obviously seeks to work with Britain in order to set course for strategic ties now in the name of “comprehensive strategic partnership of the 21st century”.

Internationally, China and Britain are not only the UN founders but also have shared the common interests in preserving “Yalta Agreement” and “Potsdam Declaration” that are seen as the cornerstones of the post-WWII world system. Although it is not involved into the disputes between China and Japan, the British government has highlighted its position on the Belt and Road Initiative proposed by China with the announcement that it has become a founding member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) that is surely a remarkable milestone in the bilateral relations between the two major powers of the world today. This mutual tie aims to argue for the multiple world order which should be built upon a consensus on the cooperation among all the states and anti-hegemony of any single power or power bloc. As Hammond said recently, “I welcome Belt and Road Initiative as an opportunity to strengthen our economic tie, as our two countries have a long and rich trading history.” As the nationalism and the trade protectionism gained their strength worldwide especially in US in the past few years, the two political and economic power--Britain and China should cooperate to defend the ideology and practice of free trade and Paris Climate Agreement through bilateral communication channel and multilateral inter-governmental organizations such as UN, WTO, IMF and AIIB to ensure longer-term sustainable development for the world.

Strategically, Britain has been able to maintain“special relations” with the United States which is what Europeans still occasionally refer to as “Anglo—Saxon” powers. Besides having a large number of cultural ties between the two sides, they have habitually concerned not just with the balance of power in one particular corner of the world but with the evolution of what we today call “world order”. Due to this, both Britain and the US are more interested in promoting business and trade globally, a world-wide system of trade and finance/investment which has been proposed by China would be able to extend huge benefits to Britain, as “our ambition is for more trade, not less trade, and China clearly share this ambition”, as Hammond argued. True, as China is the largest rising power, it is wise to understand Britain’s relations with the United States, simply due to the fact that the Anglo-American bloc is the ruling power of the world today. Obviously, it is a correct approach diplomatically and a political wisdom to deepen strategic tie between China and Britain. Closer relationship between Britain and China casts no threat to the existing “Anglo-Saxon” special relations. China does not aim at overturning the US-UK ally and current world order but simply involving itself in. With China’s involvement and influence, the existing order will become stronger.

Undoubtedly, regarding the bilateral relations between the two sides, there are still serious issues between China and Britain in foreign affairs, such as the human rights, democracy in Hong Kong and other concerns involved. However, in terms of the conventional and non-conventional problems of international relations, China and Britain have been aware that it is good for both sides and the general peace of the world to work together. Specifically speaking, previous visit of President Xi to Britain aimed to upgrade mutual respect and trust in the overall cooperation, to support Chinese companies going abroad, to work with British partners and all other prospective states to build the AIIB into a professional and efficient infrastructure financing platform, to discourage any state to seek hegemony and safeguard the world peace and justice. All in all, China needs to cooperate with the former global power and all other states of the world as well in order make sure that the rise of China would be peaceful and acceptable to the other states of the world community. For sure, history memories on both sides can’t be disappear in a short time. If the 1840s’ opium War hurt Chinese national pride then, so did the reversion of sovereignty of Hong Kong in 1997 to the UK. Yet, the reality is that if UK politicians say much about the Hong Kong issue, they will just get beaten up, particularly in Beijing, and told to keep out of China’s internal affairs. Like it or not, the balance of power in the East Asia and the world in general has shifted dramatically in the last 15 years. Today, Britain acts as an intellectual partner of China in a general term and a “natural partner” in Belt and Road Initiative, since the two powers agree to build a new kind of economic structure and deal with certain huge environmental and sustainability issues.

In sum, China and Britain need to use Xi’s proposed Belt and Road Initiative to raise awareness of the mutual benefits and overall exchanges of people to people. For it is the people who are eventually going to decide the destiny of the world economy, to that end, China and Britain would be able to find a better way to speak to each other with a view to creating a new type of major powers relationship and to total avoidance of “Thucydides trap” in the 21st century. Ideology should not stand in the way of the economic goodwill of the Belt and Road Initiative. Britain’s active participation is crucial for this initiative. In return Britain will also become a winner of it economically and politically.

(*) Du Hui-yan, MA at Konstanz university/ Warwick university

Zhou Dong-chen, PhD. Lecturer at Qufu Normal University

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