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Theresa May

China key as Britain looks to find its place in a post-Brexit world

It is obvious that if Britain is to carve out a new role in the world as it looks to a future beyond the European Union, its best hope lies in strengthening and deepening ties with China

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 February, 2018, 12:58am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 February, 2018, 12:58am

China and Britain have much to offer one another, so Prime Minister Theresa May’s three-day visit last week should have moved their much-hyped “golden era” of relations resolutely forward.

The largest-ever trade delegation that accompanied the leader certainly gave that impression and the US$12.75 billion in deals sealed on top of joint cooperation agreements proved a willingness to work together.

But improving links is not so straightforward, as the lack of an endorsement of President Xi Jinping’s showpiece “Belt and Road Initiative” revealed.

Xi Jinping fails to get formal backing from Theresa May on belt and road plan

For all the uncertainty, risks and lack of trust though, it is obvious that if Britain is to carve out a new role in the world as it looks to a future beyond the European Union, its best hope lies in strengthening and deepening Chinese ties.

Xi and Premier Li Keqiang offered May every opportunity, promising to open China’s door “wider and wider” to Britain. Among the deals struck was an agreement to work together on the Xiongan New Area, a hi-tech special economic zone near Beijing.

China’s door will open ‘wider and wider’ to UK, Li Keqiang tells Theresa May

The sides touched on the belt and road through a deal between Standard Chartered and China Development Bank. But the British leader lacks trust in Beijing and balked at signing a memorandum of understanding on the initiative, despite her predecessor, David Cameron, having been so supportive; under him, Britain became the first major Western country to join the Beijing-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Relations appeared to reach new heights when Xi visited Britain in 2015 and trade and investment have since surged. But the British vote to leave the EU and Cameron’s subsequent resignation and May’s appointment have brought a changed political environment.

What do Chinese see in ‘Auntie’ Theresa May that Britons don’t?

Her Conservative Party is divided on Brexit and negotiations with the EU are not proceeding smoothly, making her position as prime minister shaky. But May is also practical, as shown by the manner in which she handled the sensitive matter of Hong Kong. She had been under pressure to raise issues including democracy and human rights and although they appear to have been discussed, no open criticism of Beijing was made.

Instead, the sides merely restated their commitment to the one country, two systems principle. A joint trade and investment review is the first step of charting a new course in relations.

As cool as May is on some aspects of ties, she cannot avoid the importance of China to her country’s future. There will be disagreements, but building trust through discussing issues of common interest like trade, investment, education and science will create a foundation for broader discussion to enable a continuation of the “golden era”.