In testy remarks captured on camera at the G20 summit in Indonesia last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping gave Justin Trudeau a dressing-down, accusing the Canadian prime minister of leaking the details of a previous meeting to the media.
But at least Trudeau got some face time with Xi. Britain’s new prime minister Rishi Sunak didn’t get that chance at all in Bali, with Downing Street later explaining that a meeting between the two had been cancelled due to “scheduling issues”.
The failure to meet underlines the increasingly frosty relationship between London and Beijing, with Sunak also warning this week in his first major foreign policy speech since taking office that China poses a “systemic challenge” to British values and interests.
That challenge will grow more acute as the Chinese government moves in an authoritarian direction, he said, before attenuating that stridency by stating that “simplistic Cold War rhetoric” needs to be dropped in favour of “robust pragmatism”.
“Let’s be clear, the so-called ‘golden era’ is over, along with the naive idea that trade would lead to social and political reform,” he added.
George Osborne, a former chancellor of the exchequer in the British government, heralded this ‘golden era’ in relations when he visited Beijing in 2015 (see WiC297). A few months later, the then prime minister David Cameron enlisted the support of the British royal family to roll out what was described as the “reddest red carpet” for Xi Jinping’s state visit.
Alongside a 41-gun salute, the Chinese leader was transported in a horse-drawn carriage and hosted at a state banquet at Buckingham Palace (where Xi and his wife also stayed). Xi even managed to down a couple of matey pints with Cameron at a Buckinghamshire pub during his visit.
In the same year, the UK joined the AIIB, an infrastructure-focused lender widely seen as a Chinese-led organisation. Washington was very unhappy. The UK government also gave the green light for Chinese investment in potentially sensitive infrastructure at home, such as Huawei’s bid to be involved in the buildout of Britain’s 5G telecom network, as well as Chinese power group CGN’s investment in the Sizewell C nuclear energy project.
How things have changed in less than a decade. Huawei was ejected from the 5G rollout a few years ago and Sunak’s administration is squeezing out other forms of Chinese investment in sensitive areas.
That includes the announcement this week that the UK government will buy out CGN’s investment in Sizewell for over £100 million, the Financial Times reports. Earlier this month the government also blocked the sale of the Newport Wafer Fab to Nexperia, a Netherlands-based semiconductor company controlled by China’s Wingtech.
In another decision likely to create consternation in Beijing, the Sunak administration must also decide on how to deliver on a promise during his campaign for leadership of the Conservative Party in July: to close all 30 branches of the Confucius Institute (cultural centres backed by the Chinese government) currently operating in the UK.
Tensions flared again this week when China’s ambassador was summoned to the British foreign office after a BBC journalist was detained while covering anti-lockdown demonstrations in Shanghai.
Last but not least is the case of Jimmy Lai, a British national who owned the Apple Daily, formerly one of Hong Kong’s most popular tabloid newspapers. Lai is about to go on trial in the city on charges of colluding with foreign forces.
Lai’s case was delayed this week pending a decision on whether to allow him to be represented by a British barrister (the city’s Court of Final Appeal had earlier ruled against efforts to block overseas lawyers from working on cases relating to the national security law, prompting Hong Kong’s government to ask the National People’s Congress in Beijing to interpret the law). John Lee, Hong Kong’s chief executive, defended the move with the claim that his administration has no way of ensuring that overseas lawyers have no conflicts of interest, or haven’t been coerced or comprised by foreign governments.
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