Boris Johnson’s China problem – POLITICO

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LONDON – Boris Johnson’s government stands firmly on the fence when it comes to China, but that fence has been much more difficult to walk since Russia invaded Ukraine.

Since becoming prime minister in 2019, Johnson has sought to maintain a nuanced relationship with Beijing, demonstrating an eagerness to do as many deals as possible while keeping Chinese companies out of critical national security matters.

This has always struck many in the Conservative Party as uncomfortable, but Vladimir Putin’s decision to send troops to Ukraine – which China has neither condemned nor supported – further strains this delicate balance.

The UK’s approach to China is under renewed scrutiny after POLITICO revealed last week that the government chose not to intervene in a takeover of a Welsh microchip factory, which the former UK cybersecurity chief has described as a “first strategic matter”.

More than half a year after he began the review, national security adviser Stephen Lovegrove concluded that there were no concerns about the purchase of Newport Wafer Fab by Nexperia, a Dutch subsidiary of Chinese tech firm Wingtech, according to two government officials To block .

Ministers stress they can intervene at any time if concerns arise – but the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday called for answers on the outcome of the government’s review, and critics see the row as the latest sign Johnson is facing an inconsistent stance occupies Beijing.

Not only has the prime minister renounced the takeover of the microchip factory, he has also ordered a resumption of high-level trade talks with Beijing through the Joint Economic and Trade Commission, while Sunak wants a return of Britain-China economic and financial dialogue. Both allow ministers and senior officials from Britain and China to discuss economic cooperation.

At the same time, however, ministers backed a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics and Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, has ordered British judges to withdraw from Hong Kong amid concerns about a crackdown on freedoms. Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, is also discussing ways to reduce reliance on China for rare earth minerals, including lithium, a component of electric car batteries, as part of a government strategy due later this year.

“Boris Johnson sent very mixed messages,” said Yu Jie, a senior China researcher at Chatham House. “He has declared himself a Sinophile, but his actions are not consistent with that. While the Chinese can talk trade with the British, they also know the borders.”

“We ask China for trade talks while boycotting the Olympics. It doesn’t make sense,” said a UK government official who advocates more restrictive policies.

Ministers have intervened in some takeover attempts – notably the proposed sale of Perpetuus, a specialist graphene maker, by a Chinese consortium, and are working to bar China’s state-owned CGN from building a nuclear power plant in Suffolk. But the government is under pressure to do more to resist Beijing’s plan to dominate global high-tech manufacturing – a strategy it calls Made in China 2025 – and focus on building trade and investment from like-minded democracies to concentrate.

Some of that pressure is coming from inside cabinet members, including Truss, who said at the Conservative Party’s spring conference that Britain must end its “dependence on authoritarian regimes” and linked the boycott of Russian oil to Britain’s earlier decision to use Chinese oil Telcos to exclude Huawei from its 5G network.

But supporters of the government’s approach say Russia’s war only underscores the importance of keeping the conversation open with Beijing, which has notably refused to put its weight behind Moscow. “We don’t just have to be ‘for’ or ‘against’ China… It is in the UK’s interest to engage as broadly as possible to maintain channels and relationships over the long term,” a senior UK government official told China Relations.

Richard Graham, the government’s trade representative for East Asia, said: “Balance in relations with China will never be easy or simple – but a failure to engage will only lead to dangerous misunderstandings. In regular, healthy dialogue, we can stand up for human rights, be positive about expanding trade, welcome plenty of foreign investment, and voice concerns. All the prime minister’s instincts are to enable us to have this relationship.”

“Ferred Sinophiles”

There is little doubt where the Prime Minister – who should have described himself described by a group of companies as “fervently Sinophile” – stands on the question of engagement with Beijing. While the Conservative Party has moved away from optimistic talk of a “golden era” in relations under former Prime Minister David Cameron to open up hostility over China’s actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang province, Johnson himself has been remarkably consistent.

According to a former senior official who worked closely with Johnson when he was London mayor, the current prime minister’s pro-investment policies have always been rooted in pragmatism rather than a special love for China.

When then-Chancellor George Osborne was courting investors in China in 2013, he was caught unawares by a visit from Johnson. “He was awarded the red carpet, which was unusual for a mayor, even one of a big city,” the official recalled. “We’ve done a lot of trade trips around the world – India, the US, the Gulf, Malaysia, Singapore – but China was the really big one.”

The same official added: “Johnson’s view on this was that what’s good for London is good for London. If he can get people to buy run-down properties and renovate them, he would do it. If he could bring investment in infrastructure to London, he would. He’s taken a very sunny highland approach.”

A former employee of London & Partners, the private firm Johnson that began spurring investment in the capital, recalls that China was a priority target because it was seen as more spending-friendly than the other big rising power, India. “Everyone knew there was so much money to be made in the right circumstances, but it was very grim,” they said. “India had a reputation for promising much but delivering little.”

China’s authoritarian turn is now seen as all the more reason for action, according to a former No. 10 official familiar with the prime minister’s mindset. “He’s worried about the Uyghurs, but his view is that China is overreacting,” they said, referring to Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghur minority in China’s Xinjiang region. branded “genocide” by the United States.

“They had a certain terror problem within their Muslim minority and they were tough on it,” said the former No. 10 official. “That’s their weakness and that’s partly because we don’t have a dialogue with them.” They. The Prime Minister wants us to keep the conversation going. They’re a big player, you have to have a relationship – you can’t just sit there and throw rocks.”

“Eat your cake and eat it”

The challenge will be to continue this under pressure from the US to actually choose sides.

“You can’t talk about UK-China politics without talking about the US,” Yu said. “Britain is heavily influenced by the special relationships, the New Atlantic Charter and the AUKUS [defense] Partnership. Although more nuanced, ultimately London’s position aligns with Washington’s.”

John Bew, Johnson’s foreign policy adviser at Downing Street since 2019, warned weeks before he took office that maintaining that nuance was becoming increasingly difficult.

“The world now faces the difficult challenge of choosing between the two [China and the U.S.] and America will let its allies choose. And that’s what’s happening,” he told the Global Axess podcast in June 2019.

“The British approach, I would call it ‘have your cake and eat it’, is enjoy the rewards of being under the American security umbrella, NATO and all that other stuff – and all the benefits that come with it Related to intelligence and that brings broad, big market with the US – but also being the first to have a cap on Chinese investment in hand by using the City of London to sort of loop that money through. That’s going to be harder to navigate.”

“If I were UK Foreign Secretary I would do exactly that, I would try to navigate both of those things – but the rigor of decisions and dilemmas is becoming increasingly difficult.”

The former city hall official said of Johnson: “Given that he is still pursuing the same policies as he was mayor, even though the evidence on China is much stronger today than it was then, it is clear that it has always been about giving the best conditions achieve London PLC. He will now try to get the best terms for Britain PLC. That takes a certain amount of pragmatism… and the pragmatism is, well, we want the money and we need the money.”


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