The Americanisation of Britain's China Policy: The End of the 'Golden Decade'?
Image by Priyampatel4 via Pixabay and Stasysan114 via Wikimedia and Creative Commons

On the 14th of July this year, The Times ran the headline “Britain set to confront China with a new aircraft carrier.” In a remarkable escalation of Britain’s maritime policy, the newly commissioned HMS Queen Elizabeth is to be deployed alongside its American counterparts in the South China Sea as a deterrent to an “increasingly assertive China”. The Americanisation of Britain’s China policy was clear and obvious.

That the article made it nowhere near the front page is a telling commentary on the technological reality of 21st Century conflict. The headlines were of course dominated by the decision to remove Huawei 5G infrastructure by 2027. This heeded American sanctions on the firm controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). 

What’s more, following the imposition of a draconian ‘National Security Law’ upon Hong Kong, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab is set to join the United States in ripping up Britain’s extradition treaty with its former colony. This would accompany his offer of a path to citizenship for millions of its residents.

So who truly is behind the Americanisation of Britain’s China policy?


President Trump, unsurprisingly, believes it is his. Speaking (or as CNN reported, ‘rambling’) in the Rose Garden, he boasted “we convinced many countries – many countries- and I did this myself, for the most part, not to use Huawei”. 

The Americanisation of Britain’s China policy runs deeper than the traditional carrot and stick of Washington’s influence.

Huawei agrees. Interviewed on BBC’s Newsnight, their UK Communications Director asserted that the decision was “about trade” with the United States. The Chinese Ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, claimed similarly that the decision belied a loss of British independence from America. 

Whilst both sides agree, both are wrong. The Americanisation of Britain’s China policy runs deeper than the traditional carrot and stick of Washington’s influence. The loss of an independent policy is the product of years of swimming against the tide of China’s deteriorating relationship with the west. 

A Lost Era

A mere five years ago, the then-Chancellor George Osborne hailed a “golden decade” of Sino-British relations. Vowing to be Beijing’s “best partner in the west” he set the tone for a unique policy which traded human rights and security concerns for financial and cultural integration.

Britain had learned the hard way. Following a meeting between David Cameron and the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, in 2012, Beijing suspended top-level diplomatic relations, claiming that discussions of the region’s autonomy had “[hurt] the feelings of the Chinese people”. 

One thing was clear. If Britain were to pursue a policy independent of Washington, it would have to change tack. 

George Osborne held sway as a key architect of Britain's 'new' relationship with China - but his approach has been now sidelined.
George Osborne was the major architect of the improvement in Sino-British economic, political and cultural relations. Image by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office via Flickr and Creative Commons.

The cornerstone of this policy was to be economic cooperation. Declaring that “no economy is as open to Chinese investment as the UK”, Osborne ushered in a wave of funding. This most controversially involved China in nuclear energy, but of course also in telecoms. 

Under his direction, Britain welcomed in excess of $80bn of Chinese money. The UK also became the first G7 member of the Beijing-controlled Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Brushing aside American disquiet over alleged Chinese currency manipulation, the UK continued with plans to integrate the London and Beijing stock exchanges and to intensify joint scientific research. 

The relationship was not only to be economic, but cultural too. In 2015 the British Council organised the first UK-China Year of Cultural Exchange. Osborne set aside £6 million to fund cultural outreach projects in China. On his fateful visit that year, the Chancellor even attended a Beijing production of War Horse with the Chinese Vice Premier Ma Kai. A partnership forged not only with pound notes, it would seem, but also with theatre tickets. 

Brushing aside American disquiet over alleged Chinese currency manipulation, the UK under Osborne’s direction continued with plans to integrate the London and Beijing stock exchanges and to intensify joint scientific research. 

One marked example was the growing footballing link between the Premier League and the Chinese Super League. The British Council’s £3 million ‘Premier Skills’ programme saw unprecedented investment in Chinese community soccer. Meanwhile, several ex-Premier League stars finished their careers in China, notably Manchester City’s Carlos Tevez. In stark contrast to Washington’s caution, an effort was made across the board to facilitate Sino-British dialogue and cooperation. There was no glimmer at all of the Americanisation of Britain’s China policy.

And yet here we are, as the Financial Times puts it, in the “deep freeze”. In a far cry from the cautious optimism of Osborne’s “golden decade”, a British Foreign Policy Group poll now suggests that 83% of the British public have no trust in the Chinese government. Beijing’s Ambassador to Britain has warned starkly that the UK will “bear the consequences” of its conscious decoupling from Beijing’s influence. 

Where did it all go so wrong?

The Tiger Awakens

It is popularly alleged that Napoleon Bonaparte, in exile on St Helena in 1817, spoke the words, “Let China sleep. For when she wakes, the world will tremble.” Although the China which Osborne visited in 2015 certainly held one eye open, the China of 2020 is wide awake.  So, in its newfound confidence to pursue long standing strategic aims, Beijing is running roughshod over the prospect of a “golden decade” with the United Kingdom.

Nowhere is Beijing’s awakening more obvious than in Hong Kong. In 1993, the year in which the last British governor of the city took office, its GDP amounted to more than a quarter of the mainland’s, according to Forbes. Yet, by 2018, metropolises such as Shanghai, Shenzhen and Chongqing had grown remarkably. This drove Hong Kong into relative insignificance, accounting for only 2.7% of China’s GDP. Freed from the shackles of financial dependence, the CCP could pursue their long-held desire to assimilate the territory.  

The results have been decisive. Hong Kong was until recently a haven of market capitalism and civil liberty within an otherwise authoritarian communist state. Beijing’s new national security law renders the territory indistinguishable from the mainland. The days of “one country, two systems” are as far removed as the days of the city’s economic pre-eminence. 

The Tiger Roars

Moreover, the horrors of the CCP’s system are becoming ever more difficult to ignore. Countless reports of atrocities committed against the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang were impossible even for the ambassador to properly deny. The Chinese Ambassador to the UK’s floundering when confronted with drone footage of concentration camp prisoners on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show underlines the naked aggression of an awakened China believing itself immune from meaningful international rebuke. With the world’s eyes wandering, the CCP are settling old scores. 

The US Navy trains in the South China Sea.
The US Navy has intensified training inside the South China Sea, to China’s dislike. Image by Brenton Poyser via Creative Commons.

TThis aggression has not been confined to China’s borders. In intensifying its militarisation of the South China Sea, Beijing has engaged in a “campaign of bullying” according to American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The killing of 20 Indian soldiers in the disputed Kashmir region underscores the willingness of a newly assertive China to rekindle old border disputes. An emboldened CCP is testing the waters of global resistance to its long-established agenda. 

Beijing’s inability to contain the COVID-19 pandemic in its early stages has concentrated western conceptions of a hapless communist bureaucracy.

Not only is China pushing the limits of its borders, but it pushes at the limits of diplomacy. Washington’s abrupt closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston, Texas is but the latest episode in the intensification of the CCP’s campaign of systematic intellectual property theft. This continued on most notably from the blueprints for the F-35 fighter jet. Then there is Beijing’s so-called ‘hostage diplomacy’. Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested on fraud charges in Vancouver. In response, Chinese police abducted two Canadian citizens, seemingly at random, to hold for ransom. China is rapidly becoming a nation with which one can no longer negotiate.  

But with its mishandling of coronavirus, Beijing has trodden on its own tail. Its inability to contain the pandemic in its early stages has concentrated western conceptions of a hapless communist bureaucracy. The crisis has hence drawn attention to the steady erosion of Osborne’s “golden decade” which has characterised China’s awakening. 

Was The Times then correct to point to an “increasingly assertive China” as the source of the Americanisation of Britain’s policy? 

America First

They were only partially correct.

Xi Jinping’s newfound belligerence in pursuing Beijing’s longstanding ambitions was not formed in a vacuum. British policymakers are not responding to an inexplicable burst of Chinese antagonism, argues the political scientist Minxin Pei in Tortoise Media. Rather, they face the flailing claws of a China facing an “existential external threat” in the form of Trump’s America. The roots of how the Americanisation of Britain’s China policy occurred lie in Washington, not Beijing. 

Pei, moreover, contends that Sino-American relations took a “fateful turn” with the inauguration of the most recent US administration. This ominously recalled the opening salvos of the Cold War. As with the former conflict, both Washington and Beijing are scrambling to carve the globe into spheres of influence. Spheres with no room for the fudge of Osborne’s “golden decade”. 

The ascendancy of Capitol Hill’s China hawks has been decisive in moulding China policy across the Atlantic. As an editorial in the CCP-controlled outlet Global Times noted, “In the long run the UK has no reason to turn against China, with the Hong Kong issue fading out”. It would take more than Beijing’s hostility to Americanise Britain’s China policy. 

Trump knows this. He combines borderline Sinophobic rhetoric (notably his insistence on naming coronavirus the ‘China Plague’) with targeted sanctions to enforce his will upon America’s allies. Indeed, the British Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, named American sanctions as the cause of the government’s reversal on Huawei 5G technology. Washington’s “fateful turn” against China has been successfully imposed across western capitals. 

A Huawei smartphone.
Huawei has had a dramatic rise in power over the past decade – but its influence may wane due to the Trump Administration’s ardent approach towards China. Image by Karlis Dambrans via Flickr and Creative Commons

This shift in American policy has been as dramatic as it has been consequential. As recently as 2016, the Brookings Institution research group credited President Obama with forging “unprecedentedly close ties” between the two superpowers. In 2009, he became the first US head of state to visit China in their first year of office. During this visit, he lauded the Sino-American partnership as “the most important bilateral relationship of the 21st century”. What’s more, of the three Asian Americans in his cabinet, two were of Chinese American descent. 

How far things have come.

A New Red Scare

The Trump administration has wasted no time in fraying those ties. In an October 2018 speech, Vice President Mike Pence outlined the White House’s determination to confront Beijing unilaterally through “exercises in American strength”. And the centrepiece of these exercises was to be the imposition of $250 billion worth of tariffs on Chinese goods. Long gone were the days of unprecedented closeness. 

The reverberations of Washington’s conscious decoupling from China have been felt throughout its sphere of influence

One should not be fooled by the president’s idiosyncrasies. There was a flicker of cooperation with Beijing over North Korean nuclear disarmament. Indeed, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi censured Trump’s “coddling” of Xi’s authoritarianism. Yet, the Trump administration’s firm anti-CCP stance remained clear for all to see. In July, Secretary Pompeo declared China’s territorial claims to 80% of the South China Sea to be “completely unlawful”. At the same time, the Pentagon ramped up exercises in the disputed waters. In a nod to US views on Beijing’s legitimacy, their top diplomat even joined a host of American senior officials in referring to Xi as “General Secretary” rather than “President”. Trump may equivocate, but his administration does not. 

The reverberations of Washington’s conscious decoupling have been felt throughout its sphere of influence. Even if they have not been felt, they have been forced upon them. For example, the new US-Canada-Mexico trade agreement includes a clause permitting the White House to veto any deal made between the latter two nations and “non-market economies”. Naturally this includes the communist China. In the zero-sum landscape of “America First,” half measures are no longer tolerated. 

Britain will be no exception. American Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has repeatedly stated that NAFTA will be the model for any post-Brexit agreement with the United Kingdom. After Pompeo scheduled a meeting with the Conservative Party’s anti-China backbench caucus, the China Research Group, on a July visit to London, the pipeline of gradual Americanisation is all too clear. An increasingly isolated London will find it fruitless to resist American pressure. 

Caught in the Middle

There is no single cause of the Americanisation of Britain’s China policy. Yet, there are two distinct influences which have driven Downing Street’s abrupt curtailment of a “golden decade” of Sino-British relations. 

On the one hand, the provocations of an emboldened China have strained what was always a partnership of convenience. On the other, an increasingly belligerent Washington, having already jolted Beijing awake, is poised to use its trade leverage to drag London alongside. 

Caught between an ally and an emergent global power, Britain has chosen the former. But what of its repercussions? 

Beijing has always played the long game when it comes to diplomacy. ‘They don’t play chess, they play go,’ it is said. And in attempting to parse the long-term implications of Britain’s dramatic reversal in approach, I am reminded of the late Chinese premier Zhou Enlai’s apocryphal comments on the lasting effects of the French Revolution: 

“It’s too early to say.”