The increasingly repressive nature of the Xi regime has already provided many reasons to rethink British ties, as has a Chinese foreign policy that is increasingly asserting itself to challenge Western interests. Pointing the finger at the coronavirus pandemic has heightened tensions between the United States and China, making it increasingly difficult for the United Kingdom to maintain ties with its largest foreign ally while courting the Asian rise.
China’s decision to impose a national security law on the former British colony of Hong Kong, however, crossed a red line. As the country that negotiated the 1997 transfer agreement with Beijing, the United Kingdom has a historical and moral obligation to take the lead to counter China’s decision to crack down on the special administrative region. It is vital that the ‘global Britain’ which Mr Johnson wishes to establish now that the United Kingdom has left the EU does not back down from its commitment to defend human rights, democracy and the State of law. As many members of Mr. Johnson’s party impress, the United Kingdom cannot continue when Beijing buries the “one country, two systems” principle which was supposed to govern Hong Kong’s relations with China until 2047 .
Prime Minister deserves credit for offering a “path to British citizenship” for nearly 3 million Hong Kong nationals who hold or are eligible to apply for British national passports (overseas), in a striking departure from hostility towards the migrants that his cabinet often manifests. The government should now define what this path entails and be ready to accept anyone – probably far less than 3 million – who will want to come to the UK.
The prospect of more confrontational relations with Beijing over Hong Kong is also reshaping the context for this year’s decision to allow Huawei to play a limited role in the UK’s 5G telecommunications network, despite fears that this may provide a backdoor to Chinese espionage or sabotage. The basic reasoning behind the decision still applies, however, including the cost and delay that would result from Huawei’s complete ban on 5G and forcing operators to remove it from the 4G networks on which the next generation is will initially position.
Prime Minister should stick to previous compromise, limiting Huawei to non-essential parts of the network and a global share of 35% by 2023. But he should work closely with American and European partners to strengthen suppliers Western alternatives.
The government is right to seek to reduce Britain’s dependence on China for other essentials in a supply chain review called Project Defend. A controversial law requiring UK companies to report takeovers that could pose security risks is prudent. There is no reason to sever trade and investment ties in less controversial areas. But a lucid assessment of future Chinese involvement, particularly in key infrastructure, is important.
The West as a whole needs a realistic engagement with China, not a retreat from hostile opposing camps that characterize Cold War relations with Russia. The UK should be no exception to this principle. But neither can it do business with Beijing on the same basis as before.