In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Beijing’s ties are on a downward spiral not just with the US, but with a number of countries, and for myriad reasons.
In addition to the US, Australia, UK, and certain EU countries have been critical of China, for suppressing important information with regard to COVID-19 at the beginning of the outbreak. These countries have stated that if Beijing had shared information, the spread could have been checked. Australia drew China’s ire after it sought a probe into the origins of the pandemic. The World Health Organization, WHO, during a virtual assembly held in May 2020 relented to a demand for a probe into WHO’s handling of the virus – a demand into the origins of the virus was rejected.
Second, the US, Australia, UK, Japan, and India have taken a number of steps to reduce their economic dependence upon China, and to prevent Foreign Direct Investment in strategic industries. Australia, India and a number of other countries have passed laws seeking greater scrutiny of Chinese investments – one of the key aims is to prevent not just FDI in important industries, but also to prevent acquisitions. Apart from trying to reduce Chinese FDI, incentives have been provided to shift companies from China, for instance, Japan has come up with a package of over 2 Billion USD, to encourage its China-based companies to return. The US is also proposing a reshoring fund of 25 Billion USD, which will provide incentives to US companies to shift from China.
Several countries have passed laws seeking greater scrutiny of Chinese investments – one of the key aims is to prevent not just FDI in important industries, but also to prevent acquisitions.
Third, even in the midst of the pandemic, China’s aggressive behavior vis-à-vis Vietnam in the South China Sea, it’s belligerence vis-à-vis India across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) which resulted in the brutal killing of 20 Indian soldiers in the Galwan Valley, Ladakh, and the imposition of the national security law in Hong Kong have sent a message, that Beijing is unlikely to give up on its aggressive intent.
How Britain has been at the forefront of taking on China
One of the countries which have been vocal in its criticism of Beijing both for not sharing information pertaining to the pandemic, and for the imposition of the national security law in Hong Kong is Britain.
Britain has sought to reduce economic reliance on China, through an initiative titled ‘Project Defend’, the aim of which is to focus on altering supply chains, and ensuring that Britain reduces imports of non-food essential commodities, especially medical supplies, from China.
Watch: Project Defend – To end UK reliance on China
Britain has also suggested an alliance dubbed as ‘D10’, between G7 members+3 countries, Australia, India and South Korea, to work jointly to provide an alternative to Huawei’s 5G technologies
The imposition of National Security Law in Hong Kong
While foreign ties had already been strained after COVID-19, tensions have been exacerbated after China’s imposition of the national security law in Hong Kong, which according to Britain is a breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984. The Joint declaration categorically recognizes Hong Kong’s sovereignty through the ‘one country two systems’ agreement enshrined in the declaration. The National Security Law also breaches important aspects of agreements that had been signed when Britain left Hong Kong. Hong Kong had been handed to China in 1997 under a mini-constitution dubbed the basic law. Through the basic law, certain freedoms of Hong Kong residents were to be protected; freedom of assembly and speech, an independent judiciary, and some democratic rights. The imposition of the national security law is a clear violation of the ‘basic law’ and will impinge upon the above freedoms.
Watch: UK says China’s National Security Law on Hong Kong serious breach of Joint Declaration
After China’s imposition of the national security law, Britain has offered citizenship to 3 Million residents of Hong Kong, and the British PM Boris Johnson had stated that Huawei would be treated as a ‘hostile state vendor’. On July 14, 2020, the Boris Johnson administration took a decision to remove Huawei from 5G networks by 2027 (no new Huawei kit can be added from January 2021. The decision to remove Huawei is being attributed to US pressure, Donald Trump himself claimed that he had prevailed upon the UK, and US sanctions on Huawei. The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) had been entrusted with the task to review the sanctions.
British PM Boris Johnson had stated that Huawei would be treated as a ‘hostile state vendor’.
China’s Ambassador to the UK issued a stern warning to Britain regarding recent announcements by the Boris Johnson Administration. He stated that the bilateral relationship could be adversely impacted by Britain’s recent announcements on Hong Kong which amounted to gross interference.
China’s English language media
Apart from tough official statements, the English newspaper Global Times, a mouthpiece of the Communist Party, also issued a subtle warning to Britain not to blindly follow Washington’s line.
A write-up titled, ‘UK diplomacy stands at a crossroads amid US FTA talks’ published on the Global Times. The thrust of the article was the major stumbling block to the UK-US FTA. One of the main stumbling blocks according to the write-up, is the opposition of supermarket chains in Britain to sell chlorinated chicken. Yet, the write-up also warned the UK to adopt an independent stance towards ties with China, and not to kowtow to Washington DC.
Beijing seems to have been taken by surprise that countries that are economically dependent upon it, like the UK, which in the past have avoided confrontation in the past are not shying away from taking Beijing head-on. This is clearly evident not just from official reactions, but commentaries in China’s English newspapers – specifically Global Times. While conflict with China will benefit no one, the message does need to be driven home that arm twisting of any sort by Beijing will not be tolerated.