Fact Box

Level: 12.476

Tokens: 1056

Types: 454

TTR: 0.43

Do it your own way


UK should maintain its longstanding policy of engagement rather than let the US hijack its relations with China

Former US president Richard Nixon's visit to China in February 1972 not only transformed the US-China relationship, but had a significant impact on many Western countries' ties with the People's Republic of China. For the United Kingdom, the spring of 1972 marked a new phase of its relations with China.

Like many of Washington's allies, London had not been kept fully in the picture by Nixon and US secretary of state Henry Kissinger as they planned and executed their dramatic shift in the United States' policy toward China. There had been some divergences between the UK and US approaches since the founding of the People's Republic of China, as the UK had recognized the PRC as early as January 1950, and relations were established at the level of charged' affaires from 1954.

It was only on March 13, 1972 that Sino-UK relations were upgraded to full ambassadorial ties. This full normalization followed Nixon's visit, which--alongside its wider impact--facilitated a convergence in approaches to China by Washington and London. By late 1971, US and UK leaders were coordinating China policy more effectively. Then UK prime minister Edward Heath shared Nixon's basic strategic motivation, that full relations should be established with the PRC and China welcomed into the family of nations as soon as possible.

Reflecting this, the UK began negotiating the full normalization of relations with Beijing parallel to the preparations by Washington and Beijing for Nixon's visit. For the UK and China, there were two stumbling blocks. The first was the question of the Chinese seat in the United Nations, which was resolved in October 1971. The second was the continued presence of a UK consulate in Taiwan, even after London had recognized the PRC in 1950.

Negotiating what to say about Taiwan was the most difficult part of the Sino-UK talks in late 1971 and early 1972. The resulting March 1972 communique included acknowledgment by London of the Chinese position that Taiwan was a province of China and agreement to withdraw the official UK representation from Taiwan. Alongside this, the UK foreign secretary reiterated in parliament the UK view on Taiwan held at the Cairo conference in 1943 and Potsdam conference in 1945, and London gave private assurances to Beijing that it would not promote the view that the status of Taiwan was "undetermined" (which had been the position stated by UK ministers in 1955).

In addition to the strategic imperative for full normalization of relations with China, the UK government was motivated by economic considerations and by its interests in Hong Kong. The latter issue gradually moved up the bilateral agenda, and from the end of the 1970s, negotiations over the future of Hong Kong became the central issue in Sino-UK relations, leading to the successful and historic agreement on the transfer of sovereignty in 1997.

Much has changed over the last half century. But even amid the current challenges in relations between China and the West, the strategic rationale for engaging China has remained a central part of the UK government's approach. Indeed, it has grown further in importance, as China's domestic transformations since 1972 have been accompanied by a natural and inevitable increase in its global influence.

Since 1972, Sino-UK ties have grown substantially across a wide range of areas, from trade and investment to student exchanges, research collaboration and cooperation in addressing global challenges such as climate change. Even so, from the UK perspective, in many areas the relative weight of interactions with China does not match China's significance in global economic and political terms.

The US factor is never far from the surface, although the extent of Washington's influence has swung back and forth over recent years. In 2015, London's announcement that the UK would like to be a founding member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank was greeted with barely-concealed irritation in Washington. The US concerns have since proven unfounded, showing that the UK assessment on this was more prescient than that of its American cousins.

More recently, though, London's approach to China has been negatively impacted by US-China relations as those ties have plunged to what is clearly their worst state since rapprochement began over 50 years ago. The turn to "strategic rivalry", first marked by the Donald Trump administration in late 2017, and then affirmed by the Joe Biden administration, has cast a shadow over Sino-UK relations.

The most obvious example of this was London's volte face on Huawei's involvement with the development of 5G in the UK. As former business secretary Vince Cable reiterated recently, US lobbying of the UK government and political elites played a crucial role in London's decision.

More broadly, after Brexit the UK has sought to align its foreign policy more closely with that of the United States. This was a key message of London's March 2021 Integrated Review of Foreign, Security and Defense Policy. Wider political sentiment in the UK is often influenced by US thinking on China and continues to push the UK government in a more hawkish direction.

At the same time, UK government ministers and diplomats have continued to stress the strategic importance of working with China as much as possible. This is a welcome continuation of the UK's longstanding approach to China. It also keeps open the space for a China policy which reflects the strategic imperatives of engaging China for both national and global benefit.

China is not a current or long-term adversary for the UK, neither is there any fundamental conflict of interest between the two countries. As was the case in 1972, both would benefit if cooperation won out over competition over the next 50 years.

The author is an assistant professor at the Centre for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and an associate fellow with the Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

Contact the editor at editor@chinawatch.cn