In January 2017, the Economist published a cover story on Theresa May titled “Theresa Maybe, Britain’s indecisive premier.” The article symbolized that what the new U.K. prime minister stood for was still unclear even after being in office for six months (May became the prime minister in July 2016).
One year later, while visiting China at the beginning of February 2018, Prime Minster May still seemed indecisive and convoluted in terms of her attitude towards the world’s largest developing country and second-largest economy.
On the one hand, she hoped to strengthen ties and explore further cooperation with China in new industrial areas such as artificial intelligence, green energy, high-tech trade, digital technology, shared economy and nuclear power. More specifically, the U.K. did not want to lose the vast business opportunities brought by the Belt and Road Initiative.
On the other hand, the U.K. still hoped to poke nose into some Chinese internal business and meddle with Hong Kong affairs. During May’s visit to China, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office commented on the by-election in Hong Kong, voicing concern over an alleged erosion of Hong Kong people’s rights to stand for election and questioning the city’s high degree of autonomy. Such groundless accusations were later solemnly rejected by the Hong Kong SAR Government.
Simplicity is beauty. Compared with German and French leaders, British Prime Minister May may be thinking too much while handling relations with China. Frankly speaking, strengthening its ties with China is the best choice for Great Britain, especially when the country is leaving the European Union (EU) and facing a squeeze from other European nations.
Firstly, China (the world’s second-largest economy) and the United Kingdom (the world’s sixth-largest economy) have already laid a solid foundation for further cooperation over the past years. Britain was the first Western power to acknowledge the People’s Republic of China. Both of them are now permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and significant players on the world stage. In 2015, the “golden era” strategic partnership of China-U.K. relations was established when President Xi Jinping made a successful state visit to the U.K. Britain was also the first developed country to go against the will of the United States by joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) proposed by China in March 2015.
Secondly, it is said that China is ready to review and begin the preparatory work of the Shanghai-London Stock Connect at an appropriate time. The United Kingdom is trying its best to maintain its capital London’s status of a major global financial center after the country’s exit from the EU. However, such a goal cannot be achieved if it cannot maintain its offshore renminbi business from China.
Thirdly, the regional and global situations are now experiencing unprecedented changes. Britain was once a European and world leader. However, with its determination to divorce with the EU, Germany and France are quickly filling the vacuum and turning out to be two of the most powerful nations in the bloc. Some media outlets even dubbed Western Europe as having entered into the “Merkron” (Merkel and Macron) era. No matter whether the coming Brexit is a clean break or an amicable withdrawal, it will greatly affect the U.K. in the coming years. Under these circumstances, strengthening the relationship with China will certainly enhance May’s position and her government’s bargaining power when they negotiate new trade deals with European trading partners and countries all over the world in the future. Such a favorable bargaining capability will also have a positive influence on May’s continuing premiership and the economic and political competitiveness of her country.
(The author is the editor-in-chief of the Shenzhen Daily with a Ph.D. from the Journalism and Communication School of Wuhan University.)