Theresa May goes to China

British Prime Minister Theresa May last week made a three-day visit to China that exposed the difficulties London faces in a post-Brexit world. While seeking to reinvigorate relations between her country and China, May’s visit was low-key, with little excitement or enthusiasm, a stark contrast to the pageantry that marked the 2015 visit to London by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Now, London faces two related dangers in the wake of its decision to leave the European Union: marginalization or appearing over-eager to combat that prospect.

During the 2015 visit, Xi, along with May’s predecessor, David Cameron, launched what was heralded as “a golden era in U.K.-China relations.” The promise of that relationship has yet to be realized. The total value of bilateral trade between the two counties is about $84 billion a year, around a quarter of Japan’s trade with China. The United Kingdom is the world’s sixth-largest economy but just 3 percent of its exports go to China and only 7 percent of imports are from there.

Relations have been tense since 2016, when May delayed approval of a deal that would allow China to invest in a nuclear power plant in the U.K., a move that disappointed (and angered) Chinese officials. That decision contrasted sharply with London’s 2015 agreement to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a move that was criticized by other Western governments for putting a stamp of approval on a controversial project.

One of the biggest controversies surrounding last week’s visit was May’s reluctance to offer an official endorsement of China’s “One Belt and One Road” initiative, the massive infrastructure investment program intended to spread Beijing’s largesse and influence around the world. China had hoped that London would again break ranks with the West and be the first Group of Seven country to back the initiative. Xi repeated statements that the initiative would be open, transparent and implemented in accordance with international rules, but May parried the pressure, and refused to make the much-sought endorsement, saying only that she hoped the U.K. and China could work together to ensure that the initiative met international standards.

The visit reportedly produced deals worth more than £9.3 billion (a little over $13 billion) and that would create over 2,500 jobs. Details were not released, however, fueling speculation about how concrete the deals are. Equally important for May, however, is a framework for future relations with China as Britain leaves the EU. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said that relations with the U.K. would remain unchanged after Brexit, and the two countries agreed to a joint trade and investment review, which London touted as the first step toward an “ambitious” post-Brexit deal.

May and Xi also agreed on the need to stop North Korea’s nuclear activity and to pursue denuclearization. They restated their commitment to the “One country, two systems” model for Hong Kong. Human rights activists had pressed May to discuss the treatment of democracy activists in the Special Administrative Region (Hong Kong’s official designation) but she said nothing publicly about British concern, a move that was applauded as pragmatic by China’s nationalist press. British officials said the prime minister did raise the topic in private, however. Silence was expected. When Cameron met the Dalai Lama in 2012, China was infuriated and froze relations until Cameron snubbed the Dalai Lama on his next visit to Britain three years later. Today, Britain has even less leverage.

Beijing knows that London is looking for trading partners when Brexit is done. Moreover, London’s value to China is diminished when it leaves the EU. First, it will be unable to make the case for China in European Councils. Second, investments in the U.K. will no longer serve as a gateway into the European market. Given this future, May must prepare for more low-key visits.

It is tempting for Japanese political leaders to employ that same logic as they contemplate relations with London after Brexit, especially since the U.K. has been this country’s preferred entry to the EU. But Tokyo and London have forged close relations in political affairs and defense, and committing to strengthened security cooperation. They signed the “Japan-U.K. Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation,” promoted “two-plus-two” ministerial meetings and joint research on defense equipment, and held joint military exercises. Some officials have even talked about a “three-way alliance” with the United States.

That is a distant prospect, but it speaks to the enduring importance of Britain in a post-Brexit world. London can be an important partner in efforts to promote a rules-based order and democracy and the dignity of the individual. Japan should pursue close relations with London as Beijing plays hard to get.