British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo: AFP
On Reflection
by Rana Mitter
On Reflection
by Rana Mitter

Boris Johnson is testing China with Britain’s foreign policy ambiguities

  • The UK’s Integrated Review on Foreign and Security policy is unclear about what Britain wants from China, but that is part of the point
  • Meanwhile, if Britain is serious about getting closer to Asia it must show it is in for the long haul – and should begin by supporting language studies

“There are no faraway countries of which we know little.”

On Tuesday this week, in the House of Commons, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson deliberately altered the famous quotation from his unfortunate pre-war predecessor, Neville Chamberlain. He argued that Britain should not be constrained by a “cramped” regional policy and that among other goals, Britain would now see a “tilt” to the Indo-Pacific, that huge slice of Asia from Karachi to Wellington, in its foreign policy.
The rhetoric was to welcome the publication of the UK’s 114-page Integrated Review on Foreign and Security policy, over a year in the planning. Surprising those who expected a document full of Brexit braggadocio, the review is a sober and sensible document which clarifies that the UK wants to cooperate with its traditional allies.

India and Britain want to be closer in trade and in Indo-Pacific, with an eye on China

Yet it is the sections on Asia that have the greatest potential to reset the foreign policy that has marked Britain as a European power for the past half-century.
First, it sets the direction of travel with China. Johnson has come under pressure within his own Conservative Party to take a confrontational stance with Beijing, and at least some politicians have been disappointed that he did not declare a new Cold War.
Britain will take sensible measures to enhance its domestic security, including more surveillance of access to military technology, and it will continue to defend liberal values by speaking out firmly on Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

But Johnson has taken a political risk in saying clearly that the UK will work with China where it can. The review has been criticised by some in Britain for not being clear about what it intends from its relationship with China.


Boris Johnson warns against ‘sinophobia’ amid rising tensions with China over human rights and 5G

Boris Johnson warns against ‘sinophobia’ amid rising tensions with China over human rights and 5G
But that uncertainty is the point; it is a test for Beijing, and its significance goes well beyond UK-China relations. It is very rare for a country with a large economy, Nato membership, significant soft power (recent British Council polling showed that 81 per cent of Chinese surveyed had a favourable view of the UK), and a United Nations Security Council seat to be reconfiguring its place in the world.

If Beijing’s response to this opportunity is simply to double down on threats and angry rhetoric, it will suggest to London that Chinese diplomacy will (to adapt the saying of Israeli diplomat Abba Eban) “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity”.

Yet the review has also set up challenges for Britain. Serious engagement with Asia will need a sharp upwards turn in understanding of the region. One area is languages – Japanese, Korean and Chinese are studied by a few hundred students a year in the UK, Hindi and Urdu even fewer – a far cry from the number studying English in Asia. The UK often doesn’t pay enough attention to the assets it has.

In Hong Kong, China should learn from India’s attitude to the British Empire

SOAS, the London college specialising on Asia and Africa, suffers from permanent financial crisis because this globally-renowned skills hub is not recognised as a strategic asset. Of course, only a small number of British business, legal, media, and teaching professionals in the region will ever learn tough languages, but there is a broader and urgent agenda to make engagement with the region more natural and familiar. To be fair, there are programmes to make British civil servants more aware of the culture, politics and history of Asia. But this work needs to spread well beyond government to business and education.


UK PM Boris Johnson ‘deeply concerned’ about China’s national security law for Hong Kong

UK PM Boris Johnson ‘deeply concerned’ about China’s national security law for Hong Kong
The UK government has recently introduced the Turing Scheme, which aims to create student exchanges between British and international universities. At the moment, there is a laissez-faire element to it, encouraging hard-pressed and financially strapped universities to set up links where they can. This new scheme has potential, but it needs more strategy, and more cash. Active steps should be taken to get the best British students and professionals into universities in India, Japan, Singapore, or Indonesia, and to cover the real costs.
And they should also send them to China. If China is going to be a strategic competitor, then the next generation of British students need to be as familiar with its business culture, media (traditional and social) as they are with that of the United States or Europe.

Britain thinks China is the new USSR or Japan. It needs to rethink

It’s good news that Britain wants to get closer to Asia, and the review’s aspirations should be the subject of praise, not sneering. But this has to be a long-haul decision, with plans for the next decade, and beyond.

Asia is at far too busy and turbulent a stage to make space for a visitor from Northwest Europe passing by only briefly. There are many aspects of Britain hugely respected across Asia: its education system, media, and creative industries among them. But these are just a foot in the door. The challenge for Britain is to show what it has to offer Asia – and to show that it intends to stay.

Rana Mitter’s most recent book is China’s Good War: How World War II is Shaping a New Nationalism (2020)