Theresa May in China

As the Brexit debate trudges along, Britain’s prime minister Theresa May from January 31st to February 2nd made her first official visit to China. Leading a 50-strong business delegation, the trip was a chance for Mrs May to establish the contours of Britain’s future role on the global stage.

A Global Britain

This year’s visit took place under the looming shadow of the Brexit. According to commentators, leaving the EU has significantly diminished Britain’s position in the world. At home as well as abroad, the prime minister is increasingly under attack over disagreement on the Brexit.

In an interview with The Guardian, Germany’s ambassador to London Peter Ammon stated that a national image dating back to the Second World War fueled the country’s Euroscepticism. Seen as once again standing up to German domination on the continent, Britain decided to leave the EU block on that memorable night in 2016.

Today’s challenges are of course very different. Having lauded the vision of a Global Britain, the task of charting a future course for the country rests squarely on prime minister May’s shoulders. At its core, the 2016 referendum tore open the question of a new international role for the “brexiting” country. Here, China offers opportunities for cooperation.

Boosting the Golden Era in Sino-British Relations

Launched under David Cameron, the golden era in the relationship between the two countries was put on display when Britain in 2015 became the first European country to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a multilateral development bank proposed by China.

That same year, the camaraderie between Chinese president Xi Jinping and former premier Cameron signaled the closer relationship between the two countries.

Last week, premier May together with Chinese president Xi Jinpingpledged to intensify the golden era in the relationship between Britain and China. Pragmatically, Mrs May avoided the more sensitive subjects of human rights and Hong Kong.

The Chinese president Xi Jinping stressed that China and Britain should develop the future of the Sino-British relations from a strategic, a pragmatic and a global point of view.

According to the president, both countries should promote bilateral trade and investment and deepen the level of cooperation within the framework of the Belt and Road. China and Britain should also strengthen the inclusive nature of the relationship.

Interestingly, ahead of prime minister May’s visit to China, Mr Cameron was reported to become the vice chairman of the UK-China Fund. Aimed at promoting bilateral economic cooperation, the investment fund will assist British and Chinese companies to enter the markets of both countries.

May’s contrastive coolness

Britain’s current prime minister stands in stark contrast to her predecessor. Mrs May declined to sign a proposed memorandum of understanding on the Belt and Road, instead calling upon China to play by global rules. In doing so, Britain’s prime minister spoiled the Chinese attempt at receiving Western support for its continents-spanning project.

After China’s Belt and Road Summit in May 2017, the EU member states, signaling concerns about transparency and sustainability, also did not endorse the global project. One issue is the lack of a level playing field for investment and market access between Chinese and foreign companies.

Similarly, the project has recently been criticized for its overreliance on Chinese contractors.

Nevertheless, Mrs May during her speech on 31st January did acknowledge the role of the Belt and Road Initiative in providing further prosperity and sustainable development across Asia and the world.

As with the Asian Infrastructure and Investment bank, the UK is a natural partner for the Belt and Road initiative with our unrivalled expertise. And as I’ve discussed with Premier Li, we’ve discussed how the UK and China can continue to work together to identify how best we can cooperate on the Belt and Road initiative across the region and ensure it meets international standards.

It is clear that as a result of Britain’s weakened clout, Mrs May has to strike a balance in Britain’s relationships with the USA and the EU, while moving closer to China.

However, as the European Council on Foreign Relations argues: countries ought to adopt a more realistic and political approach towards China, rather than a purely economic one. In this context, the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) and the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) also published a report calling for a new European strategy towards China.

With the fate of the Brexit still unclear, it is valuable to consider the future global role for the country. More specific: how can Mrs May marry a Global Britain with China’s Belt and Road?

Britain in the post-Brexit world

A comment on the UK-China Fund by Chancellor Philip Hammond read:

China and the UK have a very close fit, where China has huge manufacturing and construction capability and huge pools available. Whereas UK has great expertise in project finance and legal skills.

This is an interesting division of labour that deserves further scrutiny. An interesting theory was proposed by Bruno Maçães, former Portuguese secretary of state for European affairs. In an opinion piece for The Guardian, Dr Maçães remarked that Britain could perhaps adopt the Singapore model.

Dr Maçães expanded on this idea in his recent book The Dawn of Eurasia (2018). Eurasia, the author argues, is a “descriptive term for a way of thinking about a new moment in history.” This moment will increasingly be marked by growing competition between different models.

Here, the country would act as a hinge between Europe and Asia. Singapore had to look for connections with the EU and the USA after gaining independence in 1965. Britain too, could transform itself into a prime destination for foreign investment. As such, Britain may strive to expand its links with the most important economies: China, India and Indonesia.