The British prime minister is ending a visit to China under a cloud that showed up from home. Her visit was preceded by the public revelation that she has been under pressure to endorse publicly China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)by signing a Memorandum of Understanding.
And she has refused to do so. Much of this may have come from the ranks of the Conservatives themselves – there was always a split in style between the Cameron-Osborne enthusiastic proclamation of a « Golden Era » with China and Ms May’s singularly sparse mention of that notion. But the split – which may have other causes linked to views about the responsibilities for Brexit – has now gone beyond style.
David Cameron is now salesman in chief for a Silk Road Fund, lobbying for funding from China. He and his Chancellor of the Exchequer went out on a limb towards China, notably during a tour of Xinjiang by Osborne. The United Kingdom was the first European country that signed up for China’s new international financial institution, the AIIB, in 2015.
And obviously, by hailing a « Global UK » as the scenario of the future, Brexiteers seemed bound to go yet one notch further in the relationship with China.
This is not happening. Leaked information shows that China put a lot of pressure on Ms May to sign up to the BRI. The same request had been made of France – without a similar level of pressure. We are now waiting to see what will happen when Italian prime minister Gentilone visits China in the coming weeks.
There are fundamental issues with the BRI and these memorandums – which have been happily but perhaps thoughtlessly endorsed by a number of European member states wishing to get on a gravy train. The sticky points have to do with Beijing’s refusal to endorse international rules and norms – including EU public market requirements. In practice, there is also the issue of Chinese companies getting the lion’s share of the contracts – 89 % so far, according to a recent study.
But the point is not there. In the process of leaving the EU, Ms. May might easily have skipped over these issues – after all, lesser EU member states have ignored them too. What we are witnessing is a paradox.
Ms. May has actually mentioned publicly during her trip issues such as human rights and the situation in Hong Kong, intellectual property rights and, indeed, the respect of rules. Earlier, she had hit the pause button for the Chinese financed Hinckley Point nuclear project to re-examine its implications for security. She is reviewing the controversial acquisition of a major big data firm by a Hong Kong company with links to China.
In spite of gallant efforts on the surface of public diplomacy, the climate has gone cold. Deals advertised to reach 9 billion pounds are actually not clearly reaching that level. Chinese pronouncements on the consequences of Brexit are very low key, either way.
There is both a Chinese and a British lesson in this trend. China has been pushing the UK a bit further than it pushed France on the same issue – and Ms May, perhaps unexpectedly to outside observers who do not know her character, has reacted more in a Thatcher than in a Chamberlain style: she has stood her ground, in a moment of national weakness.
Of course, there are objective causes on both sides. China may regret the Cameron-Osborne era, which started with a test around the Dalai Lama issue and ended with a UK breaking from the EU to prioritize a free trade treaty with China.
Ms May is faced with the prospect of salvaging the 43 % of British exports going to the rest of the EU, while only 3,7 % go to China, with the usual trade deficit.
Ultimately, this seems to validate German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel’s remark that « if our children or grandchildren want to have a voice in the world … it will be a common European voice ».
Straying from European positions – or, in UK’s case, away from Europe – is to China as much a sign of weakness as it is of opportunity. The UK is now paying a price for being in the process of leaving the flock – it is clearly more vulnerable to demands.
But this writer cannot but express that there is also a lesson from Britain to China. In dark hours, steadfastness is – often – in the national character. Ms May’s reluctance to yield and the refusal of humiliating gestures is testimony to a British quality that is precious to Europe. What China wants to achieve should be by negotiation and according to accepted and beneficial norms, not as a result of strong-arming or baiting others.
This validates some of the points made in a recent ECFR report. EU rules and EU unity do not have only have a value in themselves. The fact is that China is now a superpower with a fairly unified decision centre, and it does not take up its partners at face value, but basically by probing and assessing not only their potential but also their strength. China is not inflexible – it is instead a talented calculator of these strengths and acts accordingly.
This piece was originally published by Euractiv.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.