Boris Johnson’s Remarkable U-Turn From Sinophile to China Hawk

Six months ago, Britain was the most China-friendly state in Western Europe. That’s ancient history now.

Boris Johnson, as mayor of London, meets tourists during an official visit to the Forbidden City in Beijing on Oct. 15, 2013.
Boris Johnson, as mayor of London, meets tourists during an official visit to the Forbidden City in Beijing on Oct. 15, 2013. Stefan Rousseau/PA Images via Getty Images

China’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Liu Xiaoming, could hardly have been clearer. “We want to be your friend,” he told reporters in early July, not long before British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced plans to ban equipment purchases from the Chinese telecommunications group Huawei on espionage concerns. “But if you want to make China a hostile country, you will have to bear the consequences,” Liu ominously warned.

Britain will soon find out what those consequences will be. That’s because it has made a remarkable U-turn in its China policy that goes far beyond the decision to block Huawei, which has now overtaken Samsung as the world’s largest supplier of smartphones. During his time in office, former U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron talked of new “golden era” of Sino-British relations and made the country arguably the most pro-Chinese state in Western Europe. Johnson has unwound all this in little more than six months, leaving in its place an administration dominated by newly converted fervent China hawks.

Explaining this change is trickier, however. As much as London’s about-face comes in reaction to Beijing’s more aggressive global posture, it also reflects broad shifts on both the right and left of domestic British politics. And underneath lie the more general insecurities that come with the U.K.’s post-Brexit position as a declining middle power struggling to rediscover its sense of strategic direction.

One thing is clear: Johnson’s shift does not represent a consistent ideological position. Although he is both an opportunist and populist, his instincts are economically liberal—hence his enthusiasm for a post-Brexit free-trading vision of “global Britain,” with a particular focus on fast-growing Asian economies. As mayor of London, he backed Cameron’s moves to win Chinese investment. “I’m a Sinophile and believe we should continue to work with this great and rising power,” Johnson said in June, even as he was preparing to reverse his earlier position favoring Huawei. In short, Johnson is by no means a natural new Cold Warrior.
As much as London’s about-face comes in reaction to Beijing’s more aggressive stance, it also reflects broad shifts in domestic British politics.

Backers of the new, harder line toward China suggest that Britain’s position is merely a response to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s aggressive diplomacy. By this account, it is Beijing’s military and diplomatic actions during the coronavirus pandemic—in the South China Sea and on the Chinese-Indian border, for instance, but also against British allies such as Australia and Sweden—that have stiffened London’s spine. An especially important contributing factor was Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong, which London sees as a clear violation of the 1985 Sino-British agreement on handing the former colony back to China.

China’s recent shifts are real—but they are not enough to explain how far and quickly Britain has turned. Instead, two key factors came together earlier this year to force Johnson to rethink his position on Huawei and, in the process, develop a more skeptical view of Chinese power: One is rooted in post-Brexit domestic politics, while the other involves Britain’s changing relationship with the United States.

The domestic source of Britain’s tougher stance on China can be traced to a revolt on the right of Johnson’s governing Conservative Party after he launched his initial Huawei policy back in January. The prime minister’s initial instincts had been commercial. Johnson’s Conservatives had won reelection in 2019 on a manifesto filled with ambitious pledges to build new broadband networks. “Everyone knew these were unrealistic,” one former senior figure at the British Treasury told me. “But for Boris and his team, building digital infrastructure was a post-Brexit priority.” Removing Huawei would jeopardize that investment, and thus hopes for economic renewal outside the European Union. Britain’s security services said Huawei’s risks could be managed, so Johnson settled on a muddled middle ground, in which Huawei’s equipment would be allowed in around one-third of the U.K.’s future 5G market—much to the anger of U.S. President Donald Trump, who has been pressuring Britain and other European countries to block Huawei.

That decision quickly ran into opposition, led at first by a band of older figures on the Tories’ anti-European, Atlanticist right wing. These included a former Conservative leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who in late July was also part of a large Tory delegation that met with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to discuss China policy during the latter’s visit to London. The power of this new Tory anti-Chinese faction is clear enough from the policies it has produced. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, another staunch Brexiteer, promised in July that Britain would allow as many as 3 million Hong Kongers to apply for British citizenship in reaction to China’s crackdown. This was an admirable move, but it was also a remarkable one, given that Johnson, Raab, and so many other Brexit backers wanted to leave the EU precisely to stop this kind of uncontrolled migration.
Britain’s hawkish China turn can also be explained by its post-Brexit identity crisis.

In a broader sense, Britain’s hawkish China turn can also be explained by its post-Brexit identity crisis. For decades, large swaths of the British right found a convenient villain in Brussels. When the U.K. left the EU in January, that villain disappeared. China now provides an alternative, giving a pleasing element of moral clarity to Britain’s otherwise confusing and diminished post-Brexit global environment. Euroskeptics suddenly became Sinoskeptics instead.

Yet these rumblings alone cannot entirely explain an anti-China turn that is also remarkably bipartisan. Much of the pressure for a Huawei rethink came via the China Research Group, a grouping of younger, centrist Conservatives, some of whom voted to remain in the EU. A tougher Chinese line has emerged on the British left, too, as the Labour Party’s new leader, Keir Starmer, attempts to jettison the legacy of his left-wing predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn. Focusing on China allows Labour to paint itself as a newly serious on national security, while also attacking Johnson for inaction on Chinese human rights abuses such as its treatment of minority Uighurs. There are a few voices who still worry about jeopardizing Chinese investment—ex-Chancellor Philip Hammond is one—but they have become increasingly marginal.

As a leader typically blessed with strong populist instincts, Johnson therefore found himself on the wrong side of a new cross-party anti-China consensus earlier this year, and he began to scramble to make amends. But it was a second factor that propelled his broader rethink and sealed his Huawei U-turn on July 14: Britain’s changing relations with the United States.

Britain justified its change of heart over Huawei with reference to a U.S. Commerce Department ruling in May, which amended export rules to block global semiconductor providers from supplying the Chinese company. Johnson said the ruling would force Huawei to use Chinese components, raising new security risks. But in truth, Britain’s volte-face was driven by baser trans-Atlantic politics. Johnson had been taken aback by the ferocity of Trump’s response to his initial Huawei compromise. With little sign that Trump or a future administration under presidential candidate Joe Biden would soften the U.S. position, Johnson realized he was risking lasting damage to Britain’s ties with its most important ally. For all of China’s warnings about consequences, a post-Brexit U.K. was much more worried about the consequences from the United States, both in terms of security cooperation and delays to any potential future trade deal.
For all of China’s warnings, Britain was much more worried about the consequences from the United States, both in terms of security cooperation and any potential future trade deal.

The politics aside, there is actually much to admire in Johnson’s new position. On the balance, and given the security concerns, his new Huawei policy looks more defensible. Britain’s China policy also needed to be recalibrated after the naive “golden era” phase, especially given the new situation in Hong Kong. More importantly, after years devoted to internal navel-gazing over Brexit, Johnson’s government appears to be finding its feet again as an outward-looking middle power, ready to play a more strategic role in the world. London’s recent support for the establishment of a new D-10 club of democracies, banding together the existing G-7 countries with India and others, was one example. Its tough position on Hong Kong and its push to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement are others.

Further decisions in the vein of the new Huawei policy are now likely, too, including reducing Chinese involvement in a new generation of British nuclear power stations and revisiting rules governing inward investment and foreign involvement in its universities. For all of the Chinese ambassador’s angry statements, it is far from clear whether these changes will irk China that much or prod it into a reaction that risks even more of an anti-China backlash in Europe. So far, at least, China has avoided hitting the U.K. with the kind of coercive diplomacy that has recently characterized its relationship with Australia.

That said, Britain’s new China stance still leaves a host of difficult questions unanswered. Seeking to outdo Trump’s hawkishness, as some British China skeptics seem to want, is unlikely to end well. A more measured policy could provide more common ground with a possible Biden administration and the EU. Domestically, Johnson’s position poses dilemmas for his Conservative Party. Britain’s recent shifts look dramatic in part because it has long been an outlier in Europe, both in its enthusiasm for free trade and its laissez-faire economic policies. China’s role as a major non-market economy with significant global influence poses complex questions for those on the right who favor freer trade abroad and lax investment rules at home.
What remains for Johnson’s government is a series of hard choices about how Britain might find a role for itself.

Although a tougher line on China has won plaudits at home and abroad, it is by no means an answer to the larger question of the shape of the U.K.’s post-Brexit foreign policy. Britain is a middle power with middling global reach. Its reputation as Europe’s strongest military player is much diminished. Most of its allies view its decision to leave the EU as a mistake. It has not been a serious player in Asia for decades. Despite talk of deploying a new aircraft carrier to the region, Britain is unlikely now to become one.

What remains for Johnson’s government is a series of hard choices about how Britain might find a role for itself, both by forging new relationships with the United States and EU, and by deciding where to spend its limited military and security resources, especially now that the COVID-19 pandemic has stretched budgets even more. London needs to avoid any further sharp deterioration in relations with Beijing, while also rebuilding ties with Asian allies such as Japan, which have been dismayed by the U.K.’s changeable positions on China. Ultimately, Johnson’s anti-China turn has been helpful for exposing the shallowness of his earlier, buccaneering vision of a “global Britain,” which now lies rightfully abandoned. What will replace it remains far less clear.

James Crabtree is an associate professor in practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and the author of The Billionaire Raj. Twitter: @jamescrabtree

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