Does China Have Any Friends Left in the West?

It was not long ago that a "golden age" of relations with China was being welcomed.

"Let's stick together and make a golden decade for both our countries," then British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne said in 2015.

The Chinese ambassador to the U.K. Liu Xiaoming wanted to "let us embrace the golden era" as Britain promised to be China's "best partner in the West."

Even after the vote to leave the European Union, British diplomats were seen to tread very carefully to maintain close ties with China, in some cases at the expense of relationships with European neighbors.

"Britain was less willing to criticize China now, in recognition of how important China will be to the U.K. after Brexit," non-British diplomats told an inquiry run by the U.K. branch of the United Nations Association.

"These problems for the U.K. are self-reinforcing because if they tread more gingerly, they appear to other members as if they are less powerful and less able to take a leadership role. This poses risks for the U.K. as they attempt to navigate their position in the world post-Brexit."

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, despite facing strong criticism from President Donald Trump and his own Conservative Party members of parliament (MPs), went ahead with a deal in early March to use Chinese company Huawei to help develop Britain's 5G network.

But a lot has changed in the last few weeks and coronavirus is only part of the story.

China has been widely condemned for its suppression of information in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak and the mishandling of it initially, but Britain's relationship was already straining before coronavirus took hold.

Rather than being China's "best partner," the U.K. might be China's only friend left in the West and even that friendship is under threat of being lost as Britain seeks to engage in diplomatic social distancing.

While Huawei's limited responsibility for the U.K.'s 5G infrastructure was voted through parliament, there was significant rebellion among Conservative MPs, with 38 siding against the government. This unease is only set to grow in coming months.

"There's always a necessity to have a sort of 'other' to blame," Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese studies at Kings College London and former diplomat, tells Newsweek.

"When we were a part of Europe, they were blamed. Of course, that will never go away but they did need another 'other.' The anger, angst and anxiety about Europe has migrated over to China."

Carrie Symonds, the British prime minister's partner and de-facto first lady, is quite public with her objection to some of China's practices, with her backing a ban for so-called "wet markets" where the sale of live wild animals takes place.

Despite the global focus on coronavirus, a China Research Group (CRG) has been set up by Conservative MPs from all wings of the party, examining the "rise of China." While it says it's not anti-China, it would explore the country's economic aims around the world.

"We need a fundamental reset of what we think about China under its current style of government, but also the way that government acts," GRG member Damian Green, a Conservative MP and former Cabinet minister, tells Newsweek.

"Around 20 or 30 years ago, there was optimism that, as China became economically more successful, that it would compete hard but it would obey international rules and not regard itself as in some way an adversary of everyone else.

"Sadly, that hasn't happened. The coronavirus crisis brings this into sharp focus because the Chinese clearly did not behave very well in the first few weeks of the crisis but it just crystallizes what was apparent already to some of us: China is not playing by the rules of the game that other international countries follow."

Human rights organization Amnesty International says that enforced disappearances and secret detention are widespread in China, media is heavily censored, mass surveillance is universal and some religious leaders have been jailed for "endangering state security."

But that balance between economic benefits and considerations around the environment and humanitarian issues has been a difficult one to maintain.

"The view of the British government machine towards China has been conflicted for many years, accepting the economic advantages but worrying about security implications," Green says.

"The decision up to now, including the Huawei decision, has always been that the economic links outweigh the security considerations. I think what coronavirus brings into sharp focus is that, in extremis, all the things we've been worried about in terms of China's basic desire only to consider its own interests and not to regard itself as a cooperative global player, has economic implications as well as security implications.

"You discover that however much you've tried to tie yourself into the Chinese economy, you're fragile. That means there are now economic arguments on top of the security arguments saying let's distance ourselves."

Boris Johnson prepares to paint Chinese Lions
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson prepares to paint the eyes on Chinese Lions, as he hosts a Chinese New Year reception at 10 Downing Street in central London on January 24, 2020. U.K. Johnson has always engaged in warm relations with China. Ben Stansall/Getty

Then maybe it is not the reality of the trading relationship that has changed but the arguments being made to justify it. Even the debate around Huawei's involvement with U.K. communications is nothing new.

"There has been quite a substantial involvement from Huawei on the telephone infrastructure side with British Telecom for years," Malcolm Rifkind, former Conservative foreign secretary, tells Newsweek.

"We already have what's called a cell operating, manned by intelligence people answerable to the British government, which monitors the way in which the Huawei involvement with British Telecom has operated. And so far that has been, broadly speaking, reassuring."

Huawei has said repeatedly that it is not controlled or owned by the Chinese government in any way but critics in the U.S., U.K. and the European Union have alleged that the Communist Party in Beijing does have oversight.

The wider issue is about how global trade—and China's role in it—could change after the worst of the coronavirus pandemic is over, whenever that might be.

The U.K. accounts for around 2.5 percent of Chinese exports, worth around $62 billion (£50 billion), according to the International Monetary Fund. This compares to around $420 billion (£340 billion) billion of exports to the U.S., its biggest trading partner. Going the other way, around 3.5 percent of British exports go to China, worth about $28 billion.

But it is more the potential for Britain than it is the present, particularly with the expected global recession because of coronavirus, that most worries some people.

"This lobbying against China is essentially arguing for poverty," Brown says. "If critics want to be honest and say they want to exclude whatever economic opportunities come along and they're anti that kind of growth then fair enough but there isn't going to be a nuanced discussion around this.

"People want clear boundaries and to be told that China is the 'enemy,' China is 'evil,' and if that's what you want, fair enough. If that's the case, say to those who lose their jobs and lose their livelihoods in Britain that it is worth the price to do that.

"Our principal trading partners are America and Europe and, because of Brexit, that faces uncertainty. There may be good reasons to exclude China as the world's second-biggest economy but you know what's left?

"The world's biggest economy, the U.S., is going through a severe recession, maybe depression at the moment because of the impact of the virus and the U.K. is probably going to be suffering the same.

"So if you want to hoist your principles up and start this rhetoric of 'moralizing' and saying that China is a nasty thing then at least be honest about the impacts. Right now, the British government is having their cake and eating it," Brown says.

The U.K. government has been very careful to limit any change in diplomatic strategy in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

"I think there absolutely needs to be a very, very deep dive after-the-event review of the lessons, including of the outbreak of the virus," U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told a press briefing while deputizing for the prime minister. "I don't think we can flinch from that at all, it needs to be driven by the science."

Asked if that will change how the U.K. works with China in the future, Raab said: "We ought to look at all sides of this and do it in a balanced way, but there is no doubt we can't have business as usual after this crisis."

Given that the U.K. might be the only friend that China has left in the West, the Foreign Office is even more neutral with its choice of words: "The U.K.'s approach to China remains clear-eyed and rooted in our values and our interests," a foreign office spokesperson told Newsweek.

"It's always been the case that where we have concerns we raise them and where we need to intervene, we will. Right now we are focused on working with China and our other international partners on the immediate response to stop the spread of the virus and save lives."

Trying to find politicians publicly in favor of closer diplomatic ties with China is a difficult task. While controversies around Hong Kong and Tibet are long-running, the recent shift in rhetoric from senior politicians about China shows that closer relationships are unlikely in the near future.

No politician Newsweek spoke to was willing to say that the Chinese diplomatic relationship should be strengthened any time in the foreseeable future (though our inbox is always open: a.hudson@newsweek.com).

But few are calling for a cessation of trade with the super-power, at least for now.

"I wouldn't remotely suggest we should try to discontinue trade with China," Rifkind says. "They're a huge power. They're a huge economic force. Of course, we should trade with China.

"But what we are learning is that some of the goods that China can offer, we shouldn't necessarily rely on them to provide. Around 80 percent of all antibiotics are produced in China, for example.

"I don't think it's very healthy that, in a global crisis, we would have to rely on China's goodwill to get the antibiotics we required. And they might, for very understandable reasons, prefer to keep them in China and use them for their own population."

This diplomatic balancing act is one the EU knows well. A report accusing China of spreading disinformation about COVID-19 was softened, according to the New York Times, because the EU feared it would damage trading relationships as Beijing applied pressure.

But it could even be that Britain's relationship was always more of a friendship of convenience rather than any meaningful, close connection.

"There are three things that have caused this shift from friendly, or at least neutral, relations towards a relationship with huge problems," Brown says.

"One is the virus, obviously. The second is China's messaging hasn't understood the dynamics of Western opinion and it's just been unfit for purpose. The third thing is that Britain is remote from China. America and Australia have historic trade links. We [the U.K.] have never really thought much about China.

"We are significant middle-ranking power to them. I think we do matter, but not hugely. We shouldn't have any illusions about this. Our choices aren't a terrifying hit on China. China is gearing up to go it alone, which echoes America and its decoupling so while Britain is of some importance, it's not of huge importance to China," Brown says.

But in the fog of coronavirus, without a global vaccine or a clear way to move from either the humanitarian or economic crises, what is realistically going to change?

"It's unlikely that the deal will continue with Huawei, rightly or wrongly," Brown says. "If we do, then America will definitely take action. America expects allegiance from its allies.

"Whatever the deal may or may not be with the EU, it seems to me that we are really just looking to America for trade. This is us becoming the 51st state. With all this talk of taking back control from Brussels and putting it elsewhere, it hasn't really landed in London, but in Washington."

Politicians are more optimistic about the importance of Britain's choices with China:

"I would like to hear the foreign secretary set out in a speech hopefully later this year, maybe early next year, a new China doctrine," Green says. "What we all agree on is that we need a new approach and that must be much more distanced [from China] than it has been before."

Liu Xiaoming, who is still China's ambassador to the U.K., reaffirmed his commitment to the "golden era" of the relationship between Britain and China only last week, promising to form a "more mature and robust relationship, broader and deeper cooperation, and stronger and enduring friendship between our peoples."

It is going to take a lot more than an end to the social distancing necessitated by coronavirus to bring the countries as close together as they were five years ago.

Correction (04/27/2020 6:45a.m. ET): An earlier version of this article called the China Research Group the Chinese Research Group. This has been corrected.

Does China Have Any Friends Left in the West? | World