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Published: 15:44, November 17, 2023 | Updated: 09:41, November 20, 2023
Cameron returns: Whither the ‘golden era’ of Anglo-Chinese relations?
By Grenville Cross
Published:15:44, November 17, 2023 Updated:09:41, November 20, 2023 By Grenville Cross

On Nov 12, the British prime minister, Rishi Sunak, announced that one of his predecessors, David Cameron, would replace James Cleverly as foreign secretary.

Although few tears will be shed over Cleverly’s departure (he now becomes home secretary), the return of Cameron was on nobody’s radar, and stunned observers.

In 2016, after the British people rejected his advice and voted in a referendum for the UK to leave the European Union, Cameron took personal responsibility. He resigned not only as prime minister but also as a member of parliament.

As foreign secretary, Cameron must have a seat in parliament, and King Charles has given him a barony. As a life peer, he can now sit in the House of Lords, the upper house of the British parliament.

It is, at least in recent times, unusual for the holder of one of the great offices of state (of which the foreign secretaryship is one) to sit in the unelected House of Lords. It means Cameron will not be answerable to the country’s elected representatives in the House of Commons, and his deputy, Andrew Mitchell, will need to cover for him. 

Many people will be unhappy with this arrangement, not least because it is over 40 years since another peer, Lord (Peter) Carrington, was foreign secretary in Margaret Thatcher’s government (he resigned over the mishandling of the run-up to the Falklands War in 1982). They imagined history would not repeat itself.

It is, moreover, necessary to go even further back in time to find another former prime minister whose career was resurrected as foreign secretary. After Sir Alec Douglas-Home led the Conservative Party to defeat at the hands of Harold Wilson’s Labour Party in the general election of 1964, he was appointed foreign secretary when the Conservatives, led by Edward Heath, returned to power in 1970.

The opinion polls show that Sunak’s government is on course for a spectacular defeat by Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party in next year’s general election, so Sunak clearly felt a drastic reshuffle of his top team might yet turn things round.

Although Sunak claimed to be steadying the ship, after losing a string of parliamentary by-elections, the Labour Party accused him of panicking. Its campaign coordinator, Pat McFadden, claimed that Sunak was using Cameron as a “life raft” to keep his government afloat, a widely shared view.

Among Conservative Party grandees, however, Cameron’s return was welcomed. His immediate successor, Theresa May, gushed, “His immense experience on the international stage will be invaluable at this time of great uncertainty in our world.”

No less elated was Lord (Michael) Heseltine, a former deputy prime minister, who called Cameron’s appointment “excellent news.” He said, “Cameron has exactly the sort of status this country requires,” and his appointment would “send an important signal to the country, but also to the world.” 

However, not everybody was applauding. Sir Iain Duncan Smith, who served as work and pensions secretary in Cameron’s government (2010-2016), and now spends his days besmirching China, said he was “astonished”. He claimed Cameron’s appointment was “a signal to China that we are pursuing business with them at all costs and at any costs.”

As for Cameron, who is still only 57, by no means old for a senior politician, he was delighted to get back in harness after seven years in the political wilderness. Having served as the vice-chairman of the 1-billion-pound ($1.24 billion) China-UK investment fund, he said “our businesses trade in every corner of the globe.”

Cameron called the UK “a truly international country”, and said he was committed to “strengthening our partnerships and making sure our voice is heard.”

When Cameron was prime minister, his voice was heard on China, loud and clear. In 2013, when he visited Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu with a 120-strong business delegation, he exuded optimism. Before embarking, he declared, “It’s going to be a very important moment for British-Chinese relations, which are in a very good state. Something of a golden era in our relationship.”  

As prime minister, Cameron forged closer ties with Beijing, encouraged mutual investment, and showed global vision. In 2015, when President Xi Jinping visited the UK on a state visit, Anglo-Chinese relations were set fair, for the benefit of both countries.

Throughout his prime ministership, Cameron was ably supported by the chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister), George Osborne, who sought to frame the UK as China’s “best partner in the West” (and, like Cameron, has been denigrated ever since by party hawks).

With Cameron and Osborne in the driving seat, the “golden era” manifested itself in various ways. Apart from greater two-way investment, the first Western clearing center for the renminbi was opened in Britain, and this served to safeguard London’s reputation as a global financial hub.

The UK, moreover, became the first country in the West to allow a consortium of industries, including the China General Nuclear Power Group, to build a civil nuclear plant, at Hinkley Point C in Somerset in southern England.

These developments, not surprisingly, infuriated the US, and, when the UK became the first Western country to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, it let fly. President Obama’s administration accused Britain of “constant accommodation” of China, but Cameron, unlike his successors, would not be cowed.

It was, therefore, a tragedy that, in their eagerness to gratify the US, Cameron’s successors, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, allowed a burgeoning partnership that promised so much to be blown seriously off course.

Their idea of Johnson’s “Global Britain” was to bow to Washington’s whims (as over the banning of Huawei in the UK), in the hope of getting a free trade deal (that has never materialized), and to seek to antagonize Beijing at every opportunity.  

In 2022, when Sunak ran against Truss for the Conservative Party leadership, she punched below the belt. She sought to undermine him by alleging he was “soft on China,” imagining this would shore up her support among party ideologues, and she was right. Duncan Smith and his henchmen, despite her abysmal record as foreign secretary, rallied to her cause.

Once Sunak replaced Truss as prime minister last year, he still felt he had to tread carefully over China, knowing his antagonists would pounce on any signs of weakness. On Nov 22, 2022, therefore, in his first major policy speech after succeeding Truss, he announced that the “so-called ‘golden era’ is over.”

At the same time, however, Sunak, who had refused to follow Truss in labeling China as a “threat,” displayed some elementary realism. He warned against a return to Cold War rhetoric, and emphasized “We cannot simply ignore China’s significance in world affairs — to global economic stability or issues like climate change.”

Even these anodyne observations upset the ideologues, and Duncan Smith condemned Sunak’s policy of “robust pragmatism”. It had, he claimed, to be recognized that “China is posing a greater and greater threat to the way we live our lives.”

Whatever the language used, it is Sunak’s actions in office that count. Although, to keep his critics at bay, he had, for example, allowed Cleverly to malign Hong Kong in the foreign office’s six-monthly reports on the city, he has also reached out to China in a way that would have been unimaginable during the Johnson-Truss years.

In April, for example, when Cleverly addressed the diplomatic community in London, he said he wanted the UK to benefit from Chinese investment, and believed in a “positive trade and investment relationship.” He also hoped British companies would do business in China, and undertook to “support their efforts to make the terms work for both sides, pushing for a level playing field and fairer competition.”

In August, Cleverly became the first British foreign secretary to visit Beijing since 2018. He emphasized that disengagement between the West and China was “not a credible option”, and confirmed the UK was “open for business with China”.

Meanwhile, the British trade and industry secretary, Kemi Badenoch, reminded everybody that China was the UK’s fourth-largest trading partner, with many British businesses having been “integrated with the Chinese economy.” She also emphasized that “we cannot describe China as foes.”

The improved climate was also apparent in Hong Kong, whose Secretary for Financial Services and the Treasury Christopher Hui Ching-yu visited the UK in April. This was the first visit by a Hong Kong minister in three years, and many doors opened to him, including governmental.

When, moreover, the British trade minister, Dominic Johnson, visited Hong Kong in May, he met investors and government officials. He said he had been liaising with Hui over removing market barriers and increasing trade, and pointed out that part of his mission was “to promote the UK as a leading destination for investment and trade.”  

It is clear, therefore, that Sunak has reviewed not only the tone of the Anglo-Chinese relationship, but also its substance. What his ministers have said and done since he took office last year represents a positive recalibration, which will hopefully be welcomed by Cameron, who has always valued pragmatism over dogma.

In April, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, another realist, warned European countries that they should not be US vassals. Although the likes of Johnson, Truss and Duncan Smith embraced that status, it is now time for the UK to start standing up for itself and to act in the best interests of its people, which is where Cameron comes in.

Although, like Sunak, much of Cameron’s focus will be on the arduous task of winning next year’s general election, and, in the meantime, handling the crises in Ukraine and the Middle East, he can still make progress elsewhere. He may not have much time available, but he should at least capitalize upon the recent improvements Sunak has made in relations with China. Even if he cannot expect, over the next year, to fully restore his “golden era” policy, he can at least seek to ensure that constructive relations between these two great nations are once again the order of the day.  

The author is a senior counsel and law professor, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong SAR. 

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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