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Opinion

UK and China's 'golden era' comes to abrupt end

Coronavirus, Hong Kong and trade war questions shake relationship

| Europe
Boris Johnson visits a laboratory at the Public Health England National Infection Service in Colindale on Mar. 1: London is mobilizing.   © Reuters

Lionel Barber is former editor of the Financial Times and chairman of the Tate art galleries.

When Chinese President Xi Jinping conducted a state visit to the U.K. in 2015, there was heady talk about a "golden era" of Sino-British relations. The mood has since chilled due to China's crackdown in Hong Kong, Huawei Technologies' controversial lead role in the U.K.'s fifth-generation, or 5G, network and U.S. President Donald Trump's pressure on allies in Europe and Asia to choose sides in the trade war.

The coronavirus pandemic has reinforced these trends, raising awkward questions about China's responsibility as well the U.K.'s dependency on China as an investor and supplier of goods and technology. Brexit heightens the dilemma because it threatens to rupture supply chains with the EU, the U.K.'s most important trading partner.

Boris Johnson's desire for an early free trade deal with the U.S. as part of his new "Global Britain" agenda only heightens the quandary. The Trump administration will look to include anti-China elements in a new trade deal with the U.K., similar to measures inserted into recent deals with Canada and Japan.

China's own actions -- including the proposed new national security law for Hong Kong, the latest ham-fisted attempt to tame the city's pro-democracy movement -- have sown mistrust.

The U.K. has abandoned muted criticism and last week joined Australia and Canada in criticizing Beijing's move on the grounds that it infringes the legally binding 1984 Joint Declaration, signed by the U.K. and China, which provided Hong Kong with "a high degree of autonomy."

In fact, the erosion of autonomy in Hong Kong during the Xi era has reached the point where Britain's former colony is effectively operating under "one country, one system." As this political reality sinks in, and unease grows about Britain's dependency on China in the wake of the coronavirus, London is mobilizing.

The Johnson government has drawn up plans, code-named "Project Defend," which identify Britain's main vulnerabilities to potentially hostile governments such as China. This includes drug supplies but also personal protective equipment -- a gap exposed during the nationwide lockdown which forced the government to place mass orders from China.

Under pressure from his own party, Johnson has also retreated on a compromise plan limiting Huawei's role in the proposed 5G network. The prime minister is seeking a full phaseout of the Chinese telecoms powerhouse by 2023, even if it risks a one- or two-year delay of the 5G rollout and the accompanying loss of economic efficiency.

Charles Moore, an influential commentator and official biographer of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, wrote in the Daily Telegraph that it was time for Britain to end its "kowtowing" and side with Britain's "true" allies: "Why aren't we forming tech partnerships with Japan, South Korea, Finland and Sweden, instead of fattening the Chinese cuckoo in our nest?"

This language is a world away from the high-flown rhetoric of the Cameron government, where finance minister George Osborne doubled down on China as the U.K. grew more distant from the EU. During a September 2015 trip to China, Osborne included a stopover in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, where up to 1 million native Uighurs were later discovered to be under mass incarceration.

Osborne said he was eyeing the strategic prize of closer Sino-British relations, with commensurate benefits such as the City of London becoming the market of choice for trading offshore yuan, China's currency.

Britain's cultivation of communist China has roots going back to 1950, one year after the founding of the People's Republic of China. The Atlee government was the first major western government to recognize the People's Republic of China, following the Soviet Union, North Korea, Poland and Mongolia.

In the past decade, Chinese investment has grown, not just in key infrastructure projects such as the Hinkley Point nuclear plant but also real estate and trophy assets such as Aston Villa, Southampton and Wolverhampton Wanderers Premier League football clubs, the Thomas Cook travel franchise and the Wentworth golf club near Windsor Castle.

Less visible, but now a topic of concern, is the exercise of Chinese "soft power" on university campuses. Huawei has spared no effort to nurture support, sponsoring institutions such as Imperial College, which Xi visited, along with funding to more than 15 other British universities.

Huawei has recruited influential British businessmen as advisers including Lord Browne, former chief executive of BP, and Sir Andrew Cahn, previously head of U.K. Trade & Investment, the government department that promotes exports and attracts foreign direct investment.

Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the influential House of Commons foreign affairs committee, says that Britain's bet on a fast-growing China 20 years ago looked a reasonable one. Today, especially after the mishandling of the initial coronavirus outbreak, an increasingly repressive regime under Xi "makes that bet look like a poor one."

Tugendhat has set up the China Research Group which is modeled on the European Research Group, the Conservative caucus which effectively hijacked the U.K. government's Brexit policy. The new China caucus is nowhere as influential but it is a straw in the wind.

Like other nations in Europe and in Asia, the U.K. cannot ignore the economic and political weight of China, "the second superpower." But Britain's "Beijing tilt" has lost its appeal. For now.

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