Is London moving away from a globalised UK?

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has just returned from a trip to Europe principally to lobby the US’ European allies to form an “anti-China coalition”.

The day after Pompeo arrived in London, the UK government announced that from next January it would open its citizenship doors to three million Hong Kong residents who are British National (Overseas) passport holders. In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said China will consider derecognising the BNO passport as a valid travel document because the UK had breached a commitment made in the Sino-British Joint Declaration, where it promised not to grant BNO passport-holders the right of residence in the UK.

This is not the first time the UK has challenged China’s bottom line. The UK denying Huawei access to its 5G infrastructure can partly be explained by economic factors, but its unilateral announcement to suspend an extradition treaty with Hong Kong and its playing the BNO card have seriously betrayed its commitment to the joint declaration and exposed its ulterior motives for gross interference in China’s internal affairs.

The UK’s recent “anti-China” actions have triggered public speculation over whether it has become a “pawn” in the hands of the US. Does it mean the earlier “golden era” of Sino-British relations, as Boris Johnson once envisaged, has come to an end and there is a risk of “decoupling” between China and the UK? The Covid-19 pandemic has added to the UK’s economic and diplomatic worries. If the UK, which has exited the EU, promotes decoupling from China, that would cause it incalculable loss.

The UK denying access to Huawei is inseparable from recent US actions. Ironically, instead of benefiting from yielding to the US’ hegemony, the UK has been told to wait till after the US’ presidential election in November for a free trade deal with Washington. In more bad news for Johnson, the new round of negotiations with the EU has come to a dead end, meaning it still faces the risk of no deal with the EU.

In the past 20 years, economic exchanges between China and the UK helped deepen bilateral ties in trade, science and technology, investment and education. In response to recent tensions between China and the UK, Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to the UK, said if the UK chooses to decouple from China it would be decoupling from opportunities, growth and the future.

Building the right relationship with China is vital to enhancing the UK’s global competitiveness and maintaining its broader interests, and also more in line with the UK’s goal of building what British scholars call a “globalised UK”.