Kerry Brown: Will Britain’s New Prime Minister Move Closer to China?

Unlike May, Johnson has only a few months to prove he is about more than just empty rhetoric.

The internal election of a new British Conservative Party leader at the end of July also meant that the United Kingdom (UK) got a new prime minister. Boris Johnson comes to power therefore via a route with no national election to legitimize him. He is also, even in his own party, a divisive figure.

In spite of this, he has promised to achieve what his two predecessors, David Cameron and Theresa May, failed to do: take the UK out of the European Union (EU), fulfilling the wishes of the British people in a referendum held in June 2016. A major part of this scheme will be to construct a new narrative for a “Global Britain,” and China will almost certainly figure in it.

Over Confident?

Unlike Nigel Farage, former leader of the UK Independence Party and now heading the Brexit Party, Johnson has not shirked responsibility. When the chance came he put himself forward to implement something he was a key proponent of three years ago. This may well be due to hubris and over confidence rather than anything else however. Unlike May, Johnson has only a few months to prove he is about more than just empty rhetoric.

On the specific issue of relations with China, the Latin-and-Greek-quoting Johnson comes with some knowledge, but no real indication of any deep commitment or fresh vision. He does not, like former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, have any evident strong personal interest in China. He visited as Mayor of London in order to fulfill his duties as the succeeding host city of the Olympics in 2008. But during his time as foreign secretary, one characterized by poor judgment and under-performance, he postponed a number of proposed trips to China and in the end, he simply never visited.

This track record means that Beijing has good grounds for regarding him with skepticism, joining the very large group of people who are simply taking a wait and see approach to what actions, rather than words, flow from his leadership. One attribute Johnson does have is an ability to delegate well, and to gather credible advisors around him. On China, therefore, the key issue is not so much his lack of track record and any demonstrable knowledge, but whether he is honest about this and hires people he trusts and listens to who can compensate for his inexperience.

These figures may not be in the British Foreign Office, where memories of his time in office from 2016 to 2018 are not happy ones. Johnson’s often cavalier attitude toward their briefings and advice, and his brittle relations with civil servants generally, means that his likely sources of advice will be from outside these fields.

At a Crossroads

Johnson is a risk taker, however, and things could become more interesting. The relationship with China is at a crossroads: of the major global economies, the economic links between the UK and China are the most underwhelming. Unlike Australia, the United States or Germany, China is not the UK’s largest trading partner. Ireland and Luxembourg rank higher, while Chinese investment in the UK is less than 2 percent. For the economic life of the average British person, China is peripheral, while Chinese companies are almost invisible.

There is an associated point to this. While we now know—thanks to the 2016 EU referendum—what British people think of their European neighbors, warts and all, how they regard China is much more of a mystery. Engagement with China, whether in business, academia or more generally in society, is still a specialist area. The UK has world class expertise in these areas, but almost next to no capacity elsewhere. It produces 300 graduates in Chinese studies nationally a year, a zero percent increase over the level from two decades ago. Therefore, the British can understand Tang Dynasty (618-907) era poetry but can’t even say “thank you” in Mandarin. This is indicative of a huge variance, and levels in other areas of knowledge are similar.

To most British people, China is remote despite the fact that Beijing is much closer to London than it is to Sydney. Chinese history, politics and culture are things that are largely passed by in the general education system. Someone can go through life in the UK barely conscious of what is happening in or with China. The simple fact is that from what little solid evidence there is at the moment, the British people are neither positive nor negative about the world’s second largest economy, they are on the whole indifferent.

A New Path

As he drives the UK toward becoming a “Global Britain” no longer intimately linked to the EU, Johnson could fundamentally change this dynamic by raising the profile and priority of China for British people. He does have significant influence now, and to see him evincing at least some emotion and engagement with China, and showing why the country increasingly matters to the UK, would potentially create a new kind of relationship.

What Johnson may do is to reset the relationship, and insist on something that is more tangible, properly reciprocal and pragmatic. That means moving beyond a lot of the history that is constraining things at the moment. It also means a UK which has a clear vision of what it wants from China and how it intends to achieve it, a UK that can insist on a stronger reciprocal relationship, but also needs to back this up by doing something much more systematic about the currently poor knowledge levels of many of its own citizens about this increasingly important new partner.

If the net result of this is a balanced, largely harmonious, sustainable relationship with China which creates a new model the rest of the world can see, then this would be a huge achievement. After all, the new risks that the UK needs to take in its trading and diplomatic relations as it undertakes the experiment of walking away from its most important current set of partnerships in the EU, means that inactivity is not an option. Nor, in this new context, is risk all on the side of London. For China too, actions which are seen as over assertive or aggressive toward the UK in its new era could have reputational effects with how the country relates to the rest of the world. Coming out with “win-win” outcomes in this context could be a huge encouragement for others.

In order to create this possibility, Johnson will have to resolve one final issue: his intense desire to be close to the U.S. This may well be the hardest quandary for him to crack. Leaving the EU for him means making significant deals with the U.S., something Trump has also promised, though with many caveats and qualifications. Keeping the U.S. and China happy at the same time—particularly at the time when they are clearly experiencing major disagreements—would be a miraculous achievement. But for Johnson, it is only one of several miracles he has promised. And at the moment, he is being given the benefit of the doubt.