Conceptualising the economy-security conundrum
In order to conceptualise this problem it is useful to look at it through the lenses provided by the Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells. The space of flows – whether of capital, people, ideas, or diseases – is not placeless but is connected to ‘networks’ of places with ‘social, cultural, and physical features’. These a-spatial flows can supersede and escape the socio-political control of nations. Therefore, national elites strive to ‘preserve their social cohesion, develop the set of rules and the cultural codes by which they can understand each other and dominate the others, thus establishing the “in” and “out” boundaries of their cultural/political community’.
This tension makes the Liberal International Order (LIO) a complex one, because this order lies at the intersection between a transnational economy and an international system of sovereign territorialities - the nation-states. The rise of China has brought this tension to the fore, especially in those countries that are allied to the US or are deeply integrated in the LIO.
Clearly, the UK reflects both characteristics. Therefore, as David Harvey says, this is a situation where one struggles to ‘keep the world open enough’ for business, while ‘prevent[ing] the rise of any grand challenge’. Based on this, the bottom-line of current UK-China relations is that London is trapped in this economy-security conundrum, partly for its special relationship with Washington, and partly for its historical role as a geopolitical actor committed to the enforcement of rule of law.
Britain’s China strategy: competing stakeholders
From an empirical point of view, at this stage China is not so much driving a wedge between countries, but within countries and the result of these domestic debates might determine the future of the international order.
Who are the stakeholders in this British debate on China? While complexity exists and one should not over-simplify, it could be argued that at the moment there is a group that favours engagement with China and another group that has grown increasingly wary of Beijing.
In the first one we find the world of big business and finance,especially businesses connected to the networks provided by long-standing associations such as the 48 Group Club and the China Britain Business Council. But there are also others as pointed out by Professor Kerry Brown in his The Future of UK-China Relations, such as HSBC, Standard Chartered, Shell, and Jardin Matheson.
Economic interests have been central to the agenda of the British government towards China since former Prime Minister David Cameron’s mandate. This period ushered in the ‘Golden Era’ where the UK and China took some important economic steps. Probably, the most important of these was the UK membership into the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the establishment of the first RMB clearing bank outside China in London, together with Chinese investments in some significant strategic British infrastructures – developments such as Hinkley Point C nuclear power station and Thames Water.
Nonetheless, recent events may be leading us to a turning point – in the short-term. We might be beyond the Golden Era as the British government and society as a whole has begun to question China’s policies in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and the South China Sea, together with the relationship between Huawei and the Chinese state. In addition, US-China tensions on Covid-19 and the consequent battle of narratives for the truth is endangering the compromise that the UK found on Huawei’s involvement in 5G back in January.
More to the point, this may have strengthened the China-sceptic group. Within this, we find UK spy agencies and GCHQ, who have been very explicit about the risks of allowing Huawei to invest in British 5G. In fact, when Ken McCallum was promoted to director of MI5, he promised to be tougher on China.
There was also the recent case in March of around forty Conservative backbenchers who rebelled against Boris Johnson’s decision to allow Huawei into the British 5G network. And only a few days ago a cross-party faction of seven former foreign secretaries urged the British government to lead an international response to contrast China’s management of dissent in Hong Kong.
Most importantly, perhaps, the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee published a report in April 2019 criticising the choice of attaching a Golden Era label to UK-China relations, and blaming the government for privileging economic priorities over security interests.
Britain’s China relations and the future of strategy
Sow what could Britain’s strategy towards China look like? Firstly, US-China relations and tensions over Covid-19 and trade are going to provide the backdrop to UK-China relations, and may have a negative impact on UK-China relations.
Nonetheless, the UK is not necessarily going to take an anti-China posture. Indeed, it is unlikely that we will see a binary approach to China. Instead, as the Foreign Affairs Committee recommended, the UK should take a ‘case-by-case approach’ towards China. The report also explicitly calls for a careful and considered strategy, stating that it ‘require[s] … rigour and unity in place of hope and muddling through’.
Currently, the UK approach to China appears confusing, and has been delegated to agencies, parliamentary committees, and departments. Given that Johnson’s strategic review due in late 2020 might be delayed, we may see some ‘muddling through’ for a while. As the Sino-British relationship affects every department of government, we are likely to see areas where the UK and China cooperate and areas where this is not possible.
If the economy-security conundrum and the lack of a China strategy carry a big lesson, it’s about strategy and strategic oversight. Until recently the UK government believed that it did not need a strategy - a similar position taken in the US for many years after the end of the Cold War. Here we see a great parallel with Covid-19, where everyone knew about the real risk of a global pandemic but didn’t take the time to plan a proper strategy. We live in a fast-paced society with increasingly ephemeral objectives and needs. Strategy requires a long-term perspective.
Dr Zeno Leoni is a Teaching Fellow in 'Challenges to the International Order' in the Defence Studies Department and affiliate of the Lau China Institute both at King's College London.
This piece is part of a blog series accompanying the School of Security Studies online research conference on Global Shocks.