Published: 10:52, January 20, 2022 | Updated: 10:55, January 20, 2022
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China essential for a 'global Britain'
By Tom Harper

Shoppers, some wearing face coverings, cross Oxford Street in central London on Dec 4, 2021, as compulsory mask wearing in shops has been reintroduced in England as fears rise over the Omicron variant of COVID-19. (DANIEL LEAL / AFP)

The United Kingdom's post-Brexit foreign policy mission phrase, "Global Britain", invokes Britain as a buccaneering trading nation, free from the "shackles" of the European Union, moving toward a brighter future that lies beyond Europe.

A more detailed codification of the mission was presented in the policy document, "Global Britain in a Competitive Age", published earlier this month.

But Britain must adapt to a new world system, especially with China, given the pivot of economic and geopolitical power toward the Asia-Pacific region, as identified by Alex Younger, MI6's head, who claimed that "power, money, and politics are going East".

The Sino-British relationship has been one of the more contentious yet one of the most important aspects of Britain's foreign relations. These contentions were apparent during the years of the Donald Trump administration in the United States, with pressure from the US contributing to Britain banning Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from the country's 5G infrastructure. That has continued under the Joe Biden administration, albeit without the bombast that characterized Trump.

The rhetoric on China in the public sphere turned more hostile, with several motions in the British Parliament targeting China. Despite this apparent shift, the rhetoric does not match Britain's actions, which were symbolized by Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak's calls for a "hard-headed, transactional" relationship with Beijing.

Sunak's assertion echoes similar claims made in this year's policy document, reflecting the reality of the world that Britain finds itself in. It is the context of Sunak's comments as well as the status of Britain's post-Brexit foreign and trading relations that underline the importance of Sino-British relations. This has become apparent in the challenges to Britain's trading relationships, which have suffered a setback with a possible deal between Britain and the EU seemingly falling through.

Replacing Britain's lost trade and access to the EU has been one of the major obstacles to making "Global Britain" a reality, and it is this issue that needs to be resolved to fully burnish the UK's status as a major trading nation and to ensure its future prosperity.

The gains made by Britain's most recent post-Brexit trade deals have been modest and have done little to replace lost trade, with the much-touted Australia deal presenting many benefits for the latter and comparatively few for Britain.

The Biden administration also appears to have little interest in extending such an offer, because it is looking to the EU, rather than the UK, as its primary partner. Washington's priorities were made apparent by Secretary of State Antony Blinken's comments describing Germany as a major partner. All of these suggest Britain's traditional partners are reluctant to engage in a major trading relationship with it, which further stresses the necessity for Britain to pursue more potential trading partners, most notably with China.

The dual impacts of Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic have underlined the centrality of China in helping realize the dream of Britain as a major trading nation. Following Brexit, China has replaced Germany as Britain's largest import partner and has been invaluable as a source of medical equipment in Britain's battle against COVID-19.

As one of the few major economies to continue growing despite the pandemic, China's economic progress has further highlighted the pivotal role it plays for not just the British economy, but also the global economy.

A further incentive can be found in the US-led NATO's withdrawal from Afghanistan, which has been cited as one of the first major challenges facing "Global Britain" given Britain's apparent inability to predict or shape events in Afghanistan as well as a wider disconnect between Britain and its traditional allies. This disconnect was especially evident in British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's failure to persuade Biden to extend the withdrawal period, raising fears that Britain has few friends in a fast-changing world.

Yet the events in Afghanistan are also illustrative of the direction "Global Britain" should take in engaging relevant stakeholders.

As a stakeholder in Central Asia, China has an incentive to become such an influence and is well placed to do so as a result of its close relations with Pakistan. While this indicates a potential avenue for cooperation, it also shows how one of the key objectives for a successful "Global Britain" is the ability to influence key stakeholders that are able to shape events beyond Britain's capacities.

So, what must Britain do to make "Global Britain" a reality? It should draw upon its formidable resources of soft power, recently demonstrated by the appeal of productions such as Peppa Pig to global audiences.

Additionally, as the report identified, the established system is no longer tenable, which suggests that the UK needs to chart a new path, free from the ideological assumptions of the past. As British historian Adam Tooze wrote in The New Statesman, while China's rise appears unsettling, it will ultimately be instrumental in our future, and "Global Britain" is no exception to it. Therefore, a hard-headed transactional relationship with China is just what "Global Britain" needs to be a success.

The author is non-resident research fellow at the Global Engagement Academy Shandong University (Weihai).

The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.