In 2019, the United Kingdom ranked 9th among the People’s Republic of China’s top trading partners in terms of export sales. That is to say, the UK imported around 62 billion dollars worth of Chinese shipments in 2019 alone. The same year, the PRC ranked 5th among major trading partners of Britain, meaning Beijing imported around 30 billion dollars worth of British products. Against all odds, trade and investment have been peaking after Brexit, with the UK being the first recipient of China’s FDI (foreign direct investment) in the real estate sector in Europe since 2017.
There is more: England is a decisive pawn on the Chinese geopolitical chessboard. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a massive plan for infrastructure investments covering the route of the ancient Silk Road to promote trade, diplomacy, and people-to-people exchanges, to exert influence abroad and – according to some observers – to reshape the US-led global order into a Sino-centric one. It is no coincidence that the first-ever “Silk Road train”, inaugurated in 2017, connects London and Yiwu (one of China’s main production hubs). The BRI was also the main sponsor of the 2019 London’s Chinatown Chinese Spring Festival, signalling that China-UK relations go beyond business and trade to cultural exchange.
Looking at data, it seems clear that chances for the UK to thrive without dealing with China are shrinking. However, many in Europe are still sceptical about China being a responsible actor to be entrusted with large shares of power and influence over others. The reason is a legitimate ‘fear of the unknown’: the PRC is an unfamiliar country, geographically, politically, and culturally distant from Western liberal democracies.
Doubts on the eligibility of China as a partner worthy of trust have been the result of both warnings from the United States and lack of knowledge of the Chinese context. Concerns have been raised in many European countries about whether it is acceptable to promote closer ties with the PRC. But given its growing involvement in international affairs, it seems unlikely that – for the foreseeable future – any major country will be able to avoid doing business with Beijing.
What is suggested here is a medicine for uncertainty. That is a need to depart from binary Cold-War-logic in favour of a more comprehensive understanding of the Chinese context, beyond the domain of business and trade. Filling the gaps in knowledge of China’s civilisation, history, society, and institutions is essential to better understand the country’s current strategy and policy-making.
The Chinese are devoted students of Western history, philosophy, and political theory: without relinquishing their identity they managed to take over those aspects of Western thought that they believed would be beneficial to them. Greater understanding of factors of this kind would enhance the ability of Western governments to predict China’s behaviour and, possibly, to find a framework for mutual understanding under which to operate.
The PRC is experiencing impressive economic and technological development. At this pace, the capacity of China’s economy will outstrip the U.S. within the next few decades. Likely, the templates of economic – and eventually, political – power will be shifting from West to East. Greater knowledge of China will provide policy-makers with useful tools to promote national interests through an effective relationship with Beijing.
Furthermore, with power shifting from the U.S. to China, Europe might draw strength from acting as a mediator. In the geographic middle ground, European countries – especially the UK, given its traditional diplomatic ties with the United States – might be in a position to make the best of both worlds. Such a repositioning should start now and be consolidated over time if it is to be an effective reality at the time of the shift.
To this end, it is essential for the UK to get the big picture: if Brexit really does mean that a more independent Britain will have the chance to reboot its foreign policy and build healthier, equitable and ethical bilateral relationships with its international partners, then China would be a good place to start. For this to be possible, a holistic approach to China should be pushed forward to become the bedrock for a new topic of conversation within the English public discourse.