On 16 March 2021, the United Kingdom Government published its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development, and Foreign Policy under the name of “Global Britain in a Competitive Age”. The Review signals a post-Brexit vision that has set the terms for a new relationship with the rest of the globe and an original approach to national and international security and policy. It has also been backed by a Command Paper which set out the expansion of the UK's nuclear deterrent. This article, however, will be primarily concerned with the UK’s Indo-Pacific tilt towards India, Japan, and China. It will seek to understand the UK’s contradictory policy towards China which has been declared both a “state-based threat” and a “systemic competitor”.
The Review claims that China is a “state-based threat” with its “authoritarian” institutional make-up recognised incompatible with the UK’s democratic values. Proof of this can be seen in the recent actions taken by the Chinese government, such as against Uyghur minorities in the Xinjiang province, the actions taken against pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, and the recent capture of a BBC reporter.
The Review clearly recognised the security threat of China in rhetorical terms. Britain remains cautious as it has not authorised any actions beyond mere rhetoric. In other words, no measures or sanctions against Chinese officials have been forthcoming. Even with the Chinese allegedly targeting the Sino-British Declaration in Hong Kong, no action has been taken by Britain. In comparison, two weeks ago, the United States placed sanctions on twenty-four Chinese officials for undermining freedom and autonomy. To Britain however, China remains a “state-based threat” in name only.
This caution boils down to the second label given to China in the Review: their role as a “systemic competitor”. In this role, Britain has pledged to “remain open to Chinese trade and investment”. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that the UK is reliant on Chinese imports. At no point was this clearer than in April of 2020 when the UK government flew over 22 million parts of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) kits and 1000 ventilators to alleviate pressures on the UK population and healthcare system. China was not a threat then but rather was a notable trade partner.
Beyond this, establishing amicable trading relations with China is highly significant in order to foster better relations further afield. The case in point is India. If Britain opted for a more hard-line role against China, whilst also pursuing the Indo-Pacific tilt, India would be reduced to a battleground between China and Britain. In the UK’s Review, there is an active pursuit of a trade policy with India. It declares that UK-Indian trade has more than doubled between 2007 and 2019 and that their “investment relationship supports over half a million jobs in each other’s economies”.
Trade has also been flourishing between China and India. It has recently been declared to be at an all-time high with China even displacing the United States as India’s largest commercial partner. India particularly benefits from China’s heavy machinery and telecoms. So long as China remains a “state-based threat” in name, Britain will not threaten the Sino-Indian commercial relationship. By doing so, Britain’s own access to the Indian market can be cemented. The Review can therefore be seen as treating China favorably in order to secure Britain’s new partnership with India.
In effect, Britain is sidestepping the security concerns that come with authoritarian regimes. In its place, Britain seems hopeful for a more fruitful trading relationship with China. Is this policy possible in practice? Perhaps the relationship between Australia and China may serve as a guide.
China has served punitive sanctions on Australia, which had blacklisted ZTE and Huawei from their 5G network in August 2018. The latter has since expressed great dissatisfaction over the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in China as well. These political relations have worsened trade relations between the two countries. In May 2020, China imposed an anti-dumping duty on Australian barley following World Trade Organization (WTO) investigations and domestic laws. China is also cracking down on seven of Australia’s key goods such as coal, barley, copper ore and copper concentrate, sugar, and wood.
If Britain’s future looks anything like Australia, then the Integrated Review’s goal of a Sino-British partnership may serve as a pipe dream. If Beijing imposed punitive trade regulations on Australia, what hope is there for Britain to rely on the Chinese Communist Party to safeguard our goods? Only time will tell whether Britain can balance security interests alongside trade with China.