The United Kingdom, which has been struggling with the novel coronavirus pandemic and has one of the highest totals of COVID-19 related deaths, has been raising its diplomatic profile since denouncing China over Beijing’s new national security law for Hong Kong.
Following the approval of the legislation by the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp parliament, in May, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s administration strongly condemned the move as a clear and serious breach of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration. The declaration had stipulated that Hong Kong should continue to enjoy a high level of autonomy after its handover to China, thus reaffirming the “one country, two systems” principle.
By issuing a joint statement with the United States, Australia and Canada, the U.K. took the lead in criticizing China for eroding Hong Kong’s autonomy.
Johnson also vowed to offer some 350,000 Hong Kong citizens with British National Overseas passports and 2.6 million Hong Kongers eligible to apply for the status a pathway to live and work in the U.K. and eventually obtain British citizenship.
The British government also suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong and extended to Hong Kong an arms embargo that had been applied to China — a major shift in the U.K.’s China policy.
The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, which originated in China, contributed to growing concerns among the British public over threats from that country. The U.K. government has also been hardening its stance towards China.
An international survey conducted by a French think tank, Fondapol, in April showed that the proportion of U.K. respondents concerned about China’s attitude in an international context was nearly 70%, up by 24 percentage points from 2018. The percentage of people who thought of China as the greatest threat to the U.K. has now exceeded that for Russia, which was previously regarded as the biggest worry.
Under former Prime Minister David Cameron there had been talk of a “golden era” of Sino-British relations, centering on close economic ties and symbolized by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the U.K. in 2015. Since then, however, sentiment has rapidly cooled.
The U.K.’s increasing awareness of China’s expanding geopolitical influence and its growing interest in defending the rules-based order against China adds momentum to ongoing efforts to deepen the Japan-U.K. global strategic partnership.
In its National Security Strategy and Strategic Defense and Security Review, which was released in 2015, the U.K. positioned Japan as its “closest security partner in Asia.” However, gaps between the two nations’ attitudes toward China have prevented them from establishing a trustful partnership.
For Japan, an impression has lingered of the U.K. courting China for economic benefit, as was suggested in the U.K.’s announcement on May 11, 2015, that it would be the first European nation to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) established by China.
Now that the two countries share a closer view on the impact of China’s rise and have established a foundation for further cooperation at a strategic level, hosting a bilateral policy dialogue on China could further align their diplomatic, economic and security interests and facilitate closer cooperation as champions of rules-based order on a regional and global level.
In the security and diplomatic realm, the U.K. has grown concerned over China’s assertiveness in challenging the fundamental principles of British foreign policy.
China’s expanding maritime claims and naval presence in the South China Sea, its push for stronger control over Hong Kong through extradition bills in April 2019 and its human rights abuses against the minority Muslim populations in Xinjiang have further accelerated this trend.
Beijing’s lack of transparency over the spread of the COVID-19 virus in China in late 2019 and early 2020 have further reinforced the U.K.’s distrust toward the country, and accelerated a toughening of its China policy.
Since the end of March, several U.K. politicians, mainly from the ruling Conservative Party, have claimed that Beijing concealed information on the virus in the wake of the pandemic and that its lack of transparency led to the global spread of infections.
These concerns prompted the establishment in April of the intraparty China Research Group (CRG) to review the U.K.’s existing diplomatic and economic relations with China. The CRG has the potential to exert significant influence on the country’s ties with China as it appears to trace the path of another important intraparty faction, the European Research Group (ERG). The ERG has been highly effective in shaping U.K. government policy with regard to Brexit negotiations with the European Union.
When Beijing announced it was to implement a new security law in Hong Kong in June, Iain Duncan Smith, a Conservative member of the British Parliament and former party leader, additionally set up the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China as a co-chairman along with lawmakers from other Western nations to call for stronger cooperation among democratic states to confront China.
Such growth in distrust has not only led to a greater security commitment to the Indo-Pacific region by the U.K., but also persuaded the government to change course on its critical technology ties with China.
On the security front, in 2021 the U.K. is reportedly sending its largest aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, to the Western Pacific, including to Okinawa, for the first time to conduct joint exercises with American and Japanese naval forces as a means of deterring Chinese maritime aggression.
As to its economic realm, in July the British government reversed an earlier decision capping the market share of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies Co. and instead chose to exclude its network equipment from the U.K.’s 5G mobile communications network by 2027.
This was a major change in the government’s policy. At the beginning of 2020, when the United States intelligence authorities raised security concerns over Huawei’s network equipment due to the company’s relations with the Chinese government, the British government concluded from previous assessments that the security risks posed to the U.K. by Huawei could be safely managed and mitigated.
However, at the end of May, the Johnson administration implemented a major policy shift by deciding to cut Huawei out of its network and proposing a new alliance of democratic nations — including the Group of Seven countries, Australia, India and South Korea, dubbed the “D10” — to jointly seek an alternative for next-generation telecommunications networks and related technologies.
In November, the U.K. also introduced the National Security and Investment Bill to allow the government to investigate and prevent foreign direct investment in British businesses in areas that might trigger national security concerns, such as critical technology sectors.
These decisions reflect the changing calculations within the British government to prioritize reducing dependency on China due to security issues above the economic benefits of its relationship with China.
The U.K.’s shifting attitudes towards China and its increased diplomatic and security presence in Asia have significant implications for Japan.
The U.K. has been an important strategic partner for Japan as the country is one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, and has historically maintained deep ties with the Indo-Pacific region. Tokyo and London had also committed to enhancing security and economic cooperation under joint declarations made at the summit meeting in 2017 between then-Prime Ministers Theresa May and Shinzo Abe.
Nonetheless, uncertainty remains in the U.K’s foreign policy trajectory. London will likely be preoccupied in dealing with the domestic health and economic crises, which have been aggravated by consecutive lockdowns and the emergence of new strains of COVID-19.
The post-Brexit negotiations with the EU and realigning relations with the U.S. have further consumed the U.K’s diplomatic resources.
As British foreign policy will likely be pulled in multiple directions, the relationship with Japan will be important for the U.K. to amplify its constrained economic and political resources in order to meet the strategic and economic challenges from China.
Firstly, having left the EU, the U.K. needs to reestablish a stronger regional diplomatic, economic and security base in the Indo-Pacific, which is critical to meeting the challenges from China.
The interest expressed by the U.K. in joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) would be welcomed by Japan to counter the growing influence of China in regional formulation of trade rules.
However, the extent of the U.K.’s engagement with the Indo-Pacific region — in terms of involvement in regional multilateral institutions and infrastructure connectivity initiatives, beyond trade relations — remains unclear.
London has not yet articulated substance to its “Global Britain” vision or an Indo-Pacific policy, as other European nations such as France, Germany and Netherlands have done, to expand cooperation with regional countries as a means of deterring assertive Chinese military and economic activities in the region.
The U.K. has so far focused on cooperating with countries in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance to counter Chinese assertiveness in the region. But closer coordination and cooperation with Japan could benefit the U.K by learning from the country’s decadeslong and rich experiences of building resilience against the rise of China.
Japan’s existing diplomatic capital and high trust established with countries in the region are attractive resources the U.K. could tap to expand its relationship with regional institutions centered on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Secondly, Japan has become an indispensable partner for the U.K. in efforts to reduce Chinese technologies in its 5G networks.
In October, Japan became the first county to sign a trade deal with post-Brexit U.K. But the real significance behind the two countries’ economic partnership was reflected in subsequent announcements made by Japanese telecommunications network equipment supplier NEC Corp.
NEC, which has developed an interoperable 5G solution that provides a cost-effective alternative to Huawei, Ericsson AB and Nokia Corp., has established the Global Open RAN Center of Excellence in the U.K. and stated its commitment to accelerating the country’s 5G deployment using its technologies.
As the U.K. does not have domestic equipment vendors, NEC is likely to play a crucial role in realizing the newly developed goals under the U.K’s 5G Supply Chain Diversification Strategy set out in November.
Finally, there is a growing demand for cooperation between like-minded countries to fill in the leadership vacuum in global governance left by the United States.
Despite the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden’s interest in restoring the U.S.’ leadership role in global multilateral institutions, and tackling global challenges, such as climate change, nuclear proliferation, the pandemic and digital governance, it could take time for the new administration to become active in the regional and global diplomatic scene. Meanwhile, Beijing has been actively exploiting opportunities to fill the vacuum and write the rules that will shape coming decades.
Amid political, economic and diplomatic uncertainty and unpredictability within the U.S., it is becoming even more important for Japan and the U.K. — the U.S.’ most important allies in Asia and Europe, respectively — to mutually explore ways to take concrete actions toward a leadership role in international society to deter Beijing’s assertive military and economic actions.
An immediate next step for closer policy coordination between Japan and the U.K. could be achieved by expanding opportunities to hold bilateral dialogues on challenges from China.
Until today, the two countries have not necessarily shared a common awareness towards China. But through increased dialogue on how to deal with China and through sharing experiences, they will have a clearer view on the policy areas in which they can enhance coordination.
And if they can identify areas where they can cooperate, they will likely be able to work together more effectively.
Japan and the U.K. are important partners that share common values and challenges. As they now share a common challenge of tackling China, the two nations bear the responsibility of redefining their cooperative efforts to open a new dimension in their partnership and show concrete actions before the international community.
Yuka Koshino is a Matsumoto-Samata fellow at API, sent to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in the U.K. as a research fellow. API Geoeconomic Briefing, provided by the Asia Pacific Initiative, an independent think tank based in Tokyo, is a series that looks into geopolitical and economic trends in the post-COVID-19 world, with a particular focus on technology and innovation, global supply chains, international rule-making and climate change.
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