LONDON/BEIJING -- In the not-so-distant past, China could count on the U.K. as a reliably friendly country that partners on international initiatives and welcomes Chinese investments in sensitive sectors.
Those ties have since unraveled as Britain stepped up its criticism of Beijing's national security law covering Hong Kong and its treatment of the Uighur minority -- issues China sees as domestic matters.
Nearly 5,000 Hong Kongers have applied to become full British citizens in the two weeks since a new pathway opened up on Jan. 31, the Times of London reported Thursday. The program is available to those holding or eligible for British National Overseas status.
After Beijing imposed its national security law on Hong Kong in June of last year, the British government decided to issue special five-year visas and the pathway to full British citizenship to BNO passport holders and their dependents. The passports are issued to those born prior to the transfer of the territories to China.
Up to 320,000 Hong Kongers are expected to seek refuge in the U.K. over five years, estimates show. China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has retaliated by deciding not to recognize BNO passports as valid travel documents.
"We reserve the right to take further actions," ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said on Jan. 29.
Just a few years ago, relations between the U.K. and China were said to be in a golden age. In 2015, the U.K. became the first Group of Seven nation to join the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, for example.
Chinese enterprises at the time were welcomed to invest in British nuclear power plants, with China's Jingye Group taking over British Steel. These deals intertwined the base industries in the two countries.
British skepticism toward China started to take hold due to qualms over China's initial response to the coronavirus outbreak. Relations officially went sour with the imposition of the Hong Kong security legislation.
Things escalated on Feb. 4 when the U.K.'s Office of Communications revoked the broadcasting license for CGTN, the overseas arm of the state-run China Central Television. The regulator determined that the Communist Party of China has the ultimate say on editorial decisions, which violates the ban against political entities controlling license holders.
The Daily Telegraph, a London newspaper, reported that three suspected Chinese intelligence officers were expelled from the U.K. within the past year, with each posing as a journalist working for three separate Chinese media companies.
China followed up last Thursday by banning BBC World News from broadcasting within its borders. Chinese authorities objected to the outlet's reports on human right abuses and the systematic rape committed against Uighurs in "re-education" facilities.
The U.K. navy will dispatch the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier to the Indo-Pacific region as early as this spring, where the vessel will participate in joint drills with Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force.
The move is in response to China's naval expansionism. The tighter collaboration will serve as a counterweight against attempts to alter the status quo concerning the East China and South China seas.
London's hardening stance toward Beijing is largely attributed to the growing influence of China skeptics within the ruling Conservative Party. The conservative ranks have traditionally advocated for human rights, and they are unable to turn a blind eye to the infringement on Hong Kong's self-governance and the reports of forced labor against the Uighurs.
Earlier this month, the House of Lords attached an amendment to a pending trade bill which grants the high court the authority to review trade agreements and to judge whether a trading partner has committed genocide. If the finding is affirmative, the trade deal is sent to the Parliament for debate. The provision would grant legislators the power to halt existing free-trade agreements and freeze ongoing negotiations.
Ministers in the House of Commons removed the attachment, but the upper chamber is expected to reattach it when it receives the revised bill, then kick the bill back to the House of Commons. If that law is adopted and passed, China will face a large hurdle in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement once the U.K. becomes a member.
On the other hand, not all conservative lawmakers in Britain have turned into China hawks. Although the situation with Hong Kong and the Uighurs cannot be ignored, it is necessary for the two countries to partner constructively on climate change and the global pandemic, said a source familiar with Downing Street's thinking.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is known to be friendly to China.
"I wish you and all those celebrating across the globe a happy and prosperous Lunar New Year," Johnson said in a video message last Friday, before offering a greeting in Cantonese.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and other top leaders appeared to be concerned about worsening relations with the U.K.
The People's Daily, a newspaper controlled by China's Communist Party, published a front-page story Feb. 5 detailing the virtual message Premier Li Keqiang delivered to U.K. business leaders. He hailed the British executives as "icebreakers," and said that Beijing "attaches importance, as always" to its relationship with London.
China's relations with the U.S. under former President Donald Trump are said to have deteriorated to the worst levels since the two countries established diplomatic ties. With President Joe Biden's policy direction yet to be revealed, Chinese leaders look to draw as close to the U.K. as possible.
That Johnson's Lunar New Year message was carried on China Central Television shows Beijing does not want public sentiment against the U.K. to worsen.