/ 20 November 2022

Sino-UK relations sour further after the G20 summit

Gettyimages 1244821153
: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak holds a press conference after meeting with US President Joe Biden and a phone call to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on November 16, 2022 in Nusa Dua, Photo: Getty Images

With Rishi Sunak’s dramatic entry into 10 Downing Street as the new British prime minister, Sino-UK relations were expected to hit a new low because of his aggressive anti-China tone in his run-up for leadership of the Conservative Party. 

But when reports emerged about his scheduled meeting with President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali, many analysts were expecting that Sunak would follow the example of his counterparts from the US, Australia, Germany and France and have an ice-breaking session to start a new phase in Sino-UK relations. 

However, the last-minute cancellation of the Xi-Sunak meeting, on the pretext of “scheduling issues” because of a missile that killed two people in Poland, near its border with Ukraine, has in fact damaged the already soured relations between the two countries. There is distrust on the Chinese side about the credibility of the cancellation excuse propagated by the British foreign ministry. 

The fact is that face-to-face meetings at the G20 summit between Xi  and US President Joe Biden, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, in spite of not finding anything “concrete” in terms of diplomatic discourse, have at least enabled all the participants to build a personal rapport for better communication in the future. 

An acute trust deficit is palpable in Sino-UK ties and the Xi-Sunak meeting could have played a crucial role in setting a new, frank tone between the two, preventing miscalculations and mitigating the mutual scepticism.

Sunak, who used aggressive anti-China rhetoric during his run-up for the post of British prime minister, is considered to be among the fiercest China hawks in the British political elite. In his first phone call with Biden, after taking charge of his new assignment, Sunak displayed the tone of his policy towards China by pledging to work closely with the US in the Indo-Pacific region to counter “China’s malign influence”.  

This call immediately signalled that we should brace for further high-voltage anti-China hype from the new British prime minister. When Sunak and Liz Truss fought to win the leadership of the Conservative Party, they indulged in a frantic competition of China-bashing to prove themselves the bigger China hawk to lure the Tory faithful. 

“For too long, politicians in Britain and across the West have rolled out the red carpet and turned a blind eye to China’s nefarious activity and ambitions. I will change this on day 1 as prime minister,” is how Sunak bragged while campaigning for the party leadership just two months ago.

In a series of tweets posted on 25 July, as a part of a vitriolic campaign against Beijing, Sunak seemed unreasonable when he declared that Britain’s 30 Confucius Institutes, most of which are Chinese government-run facilities on British university campuses, would be shuttered under his government’s new China policies. 

He has never hesitated in bluntly expressing his anti-China sentiments and considers the leadership of the Communist Party and China as “the largest threat to Britain and the world’s security and prosperity this century”. 

Sunak has on many occasions divulged his plan to cobble together an “international alliance of free nations to tackle Chinese cyberthreats” and empower Britain’s security agencies to “counter Chinese industrial espionage.”  

Indubitably, Sunak belongs to that cohort of Western leaders who have been deeply immersed in the anti-China mindset — reminiscent of the Cold War era when the Western media’s decades of an incessant one-sided propaganda campaign against the Soviet Union nurtured a generation of politicians with biased perceptions about communism and the Soviet leadership.

The sudden cancellation of the Xi-Sunak meeting does not augur well for the resurrection of trust between the two sides. With Sunak in Downing Street, it is expected that the Sino-UK relationship will be further chilled. 

One argument, however, is that crippled by deep-rooted domestic economic woes, ongoing infighting within the Conservative Party, and growing public approval ratings for the Labour Party, Sunak would desist from treading on his anti-China road. 

A second argument is that being a pragmatic financial manager, Sunak can’t ignore the fact that China is now the largest source of imports for the UK, worth £63.6 billion or 13.3% of all goods imports, and he will desist from antagonising Beijing because of such inordinate dependence on trade with China. 

These arguments are too optimistic. It is expected that, though himself not a populist leader, Sunak will try to copy other populist leaders like Donald Trump who nurtured the China hype to divert attention from his poor performance. Once the dust settles, and Sunak enters into the third and fourth month of his premiership, the anxiety over the deteriorating economy will again start inciting the British public and he will need a “detractor” to offset the mounting pressure. 

“The China threat” provides an ideal hinge for Sunak to deflect the pressure from domestic politics. He will certainly try to open a new front in foreign policy to find some solace. He will certainly adopt a more aggressive tone against China with the intention of projecting himself as a strong leader and to dilute the media attention on his flawed economic policies which failed to preempt the cost-of-living crisis. 

Sunak has mounting challenges at home: the prevailing political upheaval, a cost-of-living crisis, inflation, skyrocketing energy prices and supply-chain issues. His attention will certainly be on repairing the economy, taming the financial markets and – more than anything else – restoring public trust in the Conservative Party. 

He needs to tread carefully in the domain of foreign policy and any new tussle with Beijing will complicate matters for him.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.