HONG KONG – Just eight months ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping was snapping selfies with soccer stars in Manchester, dining at Buckingham Palace and drinking beer in an English pub.
Queen Elizabeth hailed Xi’s U.K. visit as a “defining moment.” Xi and Prime Minister David Cameron heralded in a “golden era” of relations, establishing the U.K. as China’s “best partner in the West.” Xi quoted Shakespeare and stressed Britain’s “positive role” in deepening China’s ties with the European Union.
Now, Cameron is on the way out, Britain has voted to exit the EU and Xi’s being forced to reassess his strategy for the 28-member bloc, China’s second-biggest trading partner, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
The U.K. has been a key advocate for China in Europe, from building trade-and-financial links to supporting initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Beijing’s leaders were counting on the U.K.’s backing later this year when the bloc decides whether to grant China market-economy status.
“One major reason why China attaches great importance to its relations with the U.K. is to leverage EU policy via the U.K.,” said Xie Tao, a professor of political science at Beijing Foreign Studies University. London’s value as a “bridgehead” to Europe has been lost with Brexit, Xie said, leaving China to turn its focus to Germany.
Moreover, Thursday’s referendum introduced new uncertainty to the global status quo, shocking financial markets and adding new pressure on China’s slowing economy. Avoiding a hard landing is central to maintaining the Communist Party’s own reputation as sound economic stewards.
Premier Li Keqiang, the highest-ranking Chinese leader to comment on the vote, on Monday said the decision had “further increased the uncertainty in the global economy.” “We would like to see a united, stable EU, and a stable, prosperous Britain,” Li told a World Economic Forum gathering in the northern port city of Tianjin.
In the longer term, the U.K.’s exit could bring opportunities, as well as risks. A U.K. facing marginalization in Europe could be more eager to boost ties with China, a vital source of trade and financial business. The country — a key market for British cars, drugs and machinery — represents 4.4 percent of the U.K.’s exports, about three times as much as a decade ago.
“Brexit might end up as a blessing in disguise for China,” said Ruan Zongze, vice president of China Institute of International Studies, a policy research group run by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “It looks like a bad situation on the surface, but there are opportunities that can be discovered and played up, as long as there’s effort on both sides.”
However, a more conservative U.K. could turn instead to the U.S., and strengthen their old alliance. The nationalistic undercurrents to the Brexit debate could grow louder, leading the U.K. to pull back from the free-market orthodoxy that has favored greater ties with China.
“If a more conservative leader takes over, the successor may ditch the U.K.’s current China strategy and move back toward its ‘special relationship’ with the U.S.,” said Zhang Baohui, director of the Center for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. “A weakened EU, which may see more defections after the British vote, is not in China’s grand strategic interests.”
Cameron spent four years overcoming the diplomatic fallout from his 2012 meeting with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama, which led to a freeze in communications with Beijing. He sought greater economic links, including the award of a nuclear plant deal to Chinese companies, and invested in personal ties with Xi, epitomized by the fish-and-chips dinner they shared near Cameron’s countryside estate in October.
Xi pledged more than £40 billion ($53.6 billion) of investments during his visit, including China General Nuclear Power Corp.’s £6 billion contribution to building the Hinkley station in southwest England. “The U.K., as an important member of the EU, can play an even more positive and constructive role in promoting the deepening development of China-EU ties,” Xi said.
There’s also the prospect that the Brexit result emboldens populist, protectionist forces elsewhere in the West, challenging a global trade system that has fueled China’s economic rise at the expense of manufacturing jobs in developed economies.
“China is a likely loser geo-economically because the prospects for a more open global trade and investment environment are weakened,” said William Overholt, a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Asia Center. “The localist, protectionist forces are strengthening everywhere, and Brexit makes it clear that they are capable of successfully confronting the globalizing elite.”
The U.K. was the first European country to sign up for the China-led AIIB, a move that annoyed Washington but was quickly followed by Germany, France, Italy and others. London now handles the bulk of the EU’s yuan trading, and became the world’s second-largest renminbi clearing house worldwide after Hong Kong.
“On the whole, China would have preferred for their own self-interest for the U.K. to stay in the EU,” said Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London, and a former U.K. diplomat in Beijing. “In the end, I think that China will work to its advantage with whatever outcome eventually emerges.”