Recent months have provided fresh insights into Britain’s China policy. On 13 March, the UK government published the Integrated Review Refresh 2023 — an update to the Integrated Review 2021. A few days later, the country joined the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). On 25 April, meanwhile, Secretary of State James Cleverly delivered a very important speech titled “Our Position on China”. These developments followed another speech delivered in late 2022 by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
Taken together, these events show that there has been an escalation in the narrative of the UK government about China. Yet, China will continue to represent a conundrum for Britain’s policy makers, as demonstrated by the ambiguities that emerge both within and in between these developments.
If China was mentioned 27 times in the 2021 version [of the Integrated Review], in this year’s update it appeared as many as 39 times.
Between a hawkish Refresh and Cleverly’s balanced speech
The Integrated Review Refresh 2023 was published with the purpose of updating the Integrated Review 2021 in light of the Russian military invasion of Ukraine; it is not surprising that much of the attention was on Russia and China, and that the “deepening partnership” between the two countries is seen with “particular concern”. If China was mentioned 27 times in the 2021 version, in this year’s update it appeared as many as 39 times.
The Refresh makes three important points about China. Firstly, it emphasised “China’s willingness to use all the levers of state power to achieve a dominant role in global affairs”, echoing the US National Security Strategy 2022 — where it was argued that China is “the only competitor with … the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power” necessary to “reshape” the liberal order.
Secondly, if generally Russia was seen as a rogue state in the UK, the Refresh associated some Chinese actions with “danger, disorder and division”, and China was described as an “epoch-defining challenge”.
Thirdly, the Refresh stated that China “pose[s] a challenge to Euro-Atlantic security”. This echoed the NATO summit in Madrid 2022 — when for the first time China ended on the agenda of the organisation — and Truss’s hawkish proposal for a global NATO — which I analysed previously in this magazine.
Yet, in a powerful line, he demanded “a recognition of the depth and complexity of Chinese history and civilisation, and therefore, by extension, of our own policy”, while rejecting “inevitability”.
On the other hand, commentators interpreted as reassuring the statement that the UK rejects the idea of a “predetermined course” in its relationship with China. Furthermore, the Refresh was balanced by James Cleverly’s speech.
The secretary of state admitted that “we can expect profound disagreements”, and that China was ruled through “ruthless authoritarian tradition”. Yet, in a powerful line, he demanded “a recognition of the depth and complexity of Chinese history and civilisation, and therefore, by extension, of our own policy”, while rejecting “inevitability”.
Cleverly’s speech appeared more aligned to that of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who argued that while "the so-called 'golden era' is over" the UK should not “rely on simplistic Cold War rhetoric”. The country “cannot simply ignore China’s significance in world affairs”, Sunak wrote.
Washington will have had a direct scrutiny of and input into the Refresh, while this could have not happened for Cleverly’s speech.
US-UK alignment on China?
The language used in the Refresh represents an escalation in the British narrative of UK-China relations. Instead, Cleverly’s speech came across as a mix of deterrence and appeasement.
To make sense of the gap between these statements, one has to call into question the special relationship with the US. Firstly, Washington will have had a direct scrutiny of and input into the Refresh, while this could have not happened for Cleverly’s speech. Secondly, the Refresh is an official document, and it cannot go off script, that is, against the special relationship, while for a speech to be labelled as policy, it would have to be part of a much longer pattern of high profile, public interventions.
Therefore, the UK, to maintain a fundamentally unaltered economic relationship with China, has used the Refresh to signal to its allies where it stands, and Cleverly’s or others’ speeches to soften that rhetoric. A similar dynamic could be seen when the Integrated Review 2021 was published, and shortly after PM Boris Johnson stated that the UK does not want a Cold War with China.
While the Integrated Review matters more than a single speech, these contradictions flag that the UK might not be ready to be on board with the US, when it comes to China.
For instance, of the two scenarios between the US and China developed by Deloitte, it is possible that the UK will be open to a strategic competition scenario, where only selected strategic technologies will be affected, rather than a scenario of decoupling, where a reduction of interdependence will happen across the full industrial spectrum.
Doubts on the UK’s strategic posture in the Indo-Pacific also remain. US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin alluded, in July 2021, to the fact that the UK might be more helpful in Europe than in the Indo-Pacific, due to its limited capabilities.
From a geoeconomic viewpoint, this uncertainty is likely to emerge again within the CPTPP, which the UK has just joined. As both China and Taiwan want to join the pact, London will have to handle, on the one hand, the need for a great power to enter the trading area — there are none yet — to give an economic sense to Global Britain; on the other hand, the need to show support for Taiwan if it wants to remain aligned to Washington — although, the US itself has applied “strategic ambiguity” towards Taiwan for decades.
While the ambiguity of the UK shows a degree of ingenuity, pursuing this strategy in the post-Brexit era risks to send its diplomacy adrift and isolate the country.
Britain’s limited leverage after Brexit
Refresh aside, the dilemmas of the UK are no different from those of the EU and of other Western countries. While the war in Ukraine has drawn the G7 more cohesively together, the EU as a whole remains wary of the US Inflation Reduction Act, while the continent’s Franco-German leadership is divided by individual envy when Germany attacked Macron’s demands for greater strategic autonomy during a trip in China.
Amidst this debate, the UK appears to have limited influence because of Brexit. As it was rightly argued, London faces a soft power problem since it left the EU. Especially when it comes to China, the UK cannot play anymore that role of political bridge between Washington and Brussels, which the US needs to influence as the largest trading bloc. This role is now performed by Germany — as von der Leyen’s leadership has shown, also in light of her future role as head of NATO. While the ambiguity of the UK shows a degree of ingenuity, pursuing this strategy in the post-Brexit era risks to send its diplomacy adrift and isolate the country.
Related: EU strategic autonomy: Easier said than done | If at first you don’t succeed: Australia woos the Indo-Pacific on AUKUS | The UK's 'tilt' towards the Indo-Pacific may not be sustainable | EU's China policy staying on track despite intensifying debate