China has said it hopes to restore relations with the UK following Labour’s landslide election victory, but most observers do not foresee any significant changes in policy. When he was prime minister, David Cameron hailed a “golden era” in relations between the two countries, but relations have deteriorated significantly since then, with China recently described as an “epoch-defining security challenge” for the UK.

New Prime Minister Keir Starmer’s government has promised to conduct a “full audit” of the country’s relations with China within its first 100 days in office. Ruby Osman, a China expert at the London-based Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, said this could provide some “clarity” after the “incoherent approaches to China” seen in recent years.

David Lammy, who is expected to become the next foreign secretary, said Labour’s strategy on China would be to “compete, cooperate and challenge” with “progressive realism”. Osman added that “progressive realism” meant solving global problems by engaging with parties that were not necessarily aligned on all issues.

China’s foreign ministry responded to the election result by saying: “We hope to work with the UK to put China-UK relations on the right track based on mutual respect and win-win cooperation.” Foreign ministry spokesman Mao Ning said a “stable and mutually beneficial” relationship would help both sides “respond to global challenges together and promote world peace and development.”

Shi Zhiqin, a professor of international relations specializing in European studies at Tsinghua University, said that the last Labour government and the Cameron administration pursued “a very friendly policy towards China,” but now “the general direction of bilateral ties is one of continued deterioration.” He noted that on key security issues, UK and US policies tend to be broadly aligned, with both countries wary of Chinese investment and Beijing’s stance on the war in Ukraine. Last year, the Dutch subsidiary of Chinese company Nexperia was forced to sell its chip factory — the UK’s largest — to a US company on national security grounds.

David Cameron, pictured in an English pub with Xi Jinping during the “golden era” of relations between the two countries. Photo: EPA

Sebastian Contin Trillo-Figueroa, a geopolitical analyst at the University of Hong Kong, said Britain’s Indo-Pacific policy would likely continue with the UK’s commitment to AUKUS, a tripartite security pact with the US and Australia designed to counter China’s growing influence in the region. He also predicted “continued restrictions on Chinese suppliers in the 5G market”.

James Downes, assistant professor of comparative politics and international relations at Hong Kong Metropolitan University, said the UK would maintain “strategic ambiguity.” He said “the focus on leveraging economic benefits from China will continue, while maintaining close ties with the US and the EU.”

Downes added that Labor was likely to share US and EU concerns about overcapacity after Washington and Brussels imposed tariffs on new energy products such as electric vehicles, arguing that overproduction was aimed at hurting the Western market.

However, he mentioned that Donald Trump’s possible return to the White House could complicate Britain’s China policy, citing Trump’s threat to impose universal 10% tariffs on all imports, including those from European allies, which could increase economic cooperation with China.

Long Jing, deputy director of the Center for European Studies at the Shanghai Institute of International Studies, said the Labour Party tends to pursue a more pragmatic economic policy towards China compared with the Conservatives.

She mentioned that the UK, as a utilitarian and mercantile international player, will strengthen pragmatic cooperation with China, considering the post-Brexit economic slowdown and the reduction in China-UK trade. She highlighted possible new areas of cooperation, such as AI governance, digital economy and people-to-people exchanges.

Wang Yiwei, a Europe expert at Renmin University, noted that trade and non-governmental exchanges between the two countries have increased. He said Britain is seeking new engagement with China and China is also keen to win the UK’s trust.

However, observers point out that the prospect of high-level exchanges, including visits by leaders, is low due to issues such as Taiwan and human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, which China considers “core interests” in which outsiders should not interfere.

Trillo-Figueroa said that if the Labour Party continues to advocate for Hong Kong’s autonomy or express concerns about the implementation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, it could complicate the Chinese leadership’s willingness to accept a visit.

Via South China Morning Post


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