Frosty Britain-China relations are here to stay

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Good morning Rishi Sunak was due to hold talks with China’s President Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Bali later in the day, but the schedule was disrupted by an emergency meeting called yesterday after a missile strike in Poland.

In many ways, the cancellation sums up Sunak’s challenge on China policy: he wants to return the UK to an earlier, less confrontational era of UK-China relations. But events and forces beyond his control mean he will fight. Some more thoughts on this below.

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A friend in Xi?

Sunak’s planned meeting with Xi (the first arranged by a British prime minister since February 2018) is unsurprising in many ways. This month, Xi met with Olaf Scholz in Beijing and with Emmanuel Macron at the G20. Most notably, he has already had a face-to-face meeting with his US counterpart, Joe Biden. After all, no one can accuse Biden of being a China dove or anything like that.

(On the subject of Scholz and Macron: two articles well worth reading: this Big Read on German-Chinese relations by Guy Chazan and Yuan Yang, while Cristina Gallardo and Clea Caulcutt Explore the Sunak-Macron “Bromance” over at Politico.)

But the prospect of a meeting between Sunak and Xi has an added piquancy in British politics because Sunak is a rare Chinese dove in a conservative party that has veered sharply toward Sinoscepticism in recent years. As Seb Payne explains, Sunak is moving British foreign policy away from the ideologically driven/values-based (not preferentially delete) approach of the Johnson-Truss era and towards one based on Britain’s (real or perceived) economic interests.

Sunak has also refrained from officially rebranding China as a “threat” in an upcoming review of Britain’s defence, security and foreign policy, as his predecessor had planned, saying instead he views the country as a “systemic challenge”.

This Biden – a Sinosceptic president of a Sinosceptic party, in a country that essentially was everyone The senior politician has moved in a sharply Sinosceptic direction — has met with Xi to sort out some of the political difficulties from the meeting for Sunak.

Westminster’s China hawks haven’t forgotten Sunak isn’t Yes, really one of them, but equally his mere intent to schedule a meeting with another leader is nothing to fear, not when a hawkish US President is also holding such talks. The presence of not only Tom Tugendhat at the cabinet table, but also Will Tanner, Sunak’s new deputy chief of staff, is enough to reassure most conservative China-hawks that Sunak’s new language is not a problem.

But despite what Sunak has managed to reassure most of his Sinoseptic party that his intentions are not yet a cause for alarm, he faces sharp political constraints on his ability to reshape Britain-China relations. The language in the UK’s integrated review could change, but forces beyond Sunak’s control mean the relationship is likely to remain sour.

In many ways, the smallest part of this is the Sinosceptic majority within the Conservative Party. That The Xi of 2022 is not the Xi of 2018 is a factor. That Washington has moved so decisively in the direction of Sinoscepticism is another.

But closer to home, the UK’s decision to give BNO Hong Kongers a new route to settling in the UK is essentially a guarantee that the chillier UK-China relationship will remain in place, either over disputes over being treated and monitored like Hong Kongers living in the UK, or because of protests outside the Chinese embassy or their British consulates.

Sunak’s meeting with Xi was canceled by external events – Sunak’s hope for a better relationship is likely to go in the same direction.

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My final Shropshire recommendation is a restaurant (what else could it be?): the raven in Much Wenlock. Very good food, very welcoming for muddy hikers, generally very nice.

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Adam Bradshaw

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