No one is likely to write an opera about Theresa May’s visit to China the way John Adams did about president Richard Nixon’s historic trip to Beijing in 1972. Her stay in China was completely obscured by media stories about Tory divisions over Brexit.
The visit was an interesting sign of the changing relationship between China and the Western powers. Nixon’s aim was to consolidate a tacit alliance between the US and China against Russia. Now, however, both the US and the European Union increasingly see China as a geopolitical threat. In naming China as a “strategic competitor” last December, Donald Trump simply made explicit what most US policy-makers have long thought.
Despite Britain’s traditional subordination to the US, May’s predecessor David Cameron and his chancellor George Osborne sought to develop a close economic partnership with China. They talked up the idea of a new “golden era” in Anglo-Chinese relations.
In 2015 Osborne even defied the US by signing Britain up to the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, proposed by China as an alternative to US-dominated institutions such as the World Bank. Barack Obama’s administration complained about “a trend toward constant accommodation of China” by Britain.
But the “golden era” never materialised. Many of the Chinese investments in Britain promised under Cameron didn’t happen. Britain runs a £25.5 billion balance of payments deficit with China, which accounts for a mere 3.1 percent of its exports.
Now May’s promises of a post-Brexit “global Britain” might seem to offer the prospect of much closer economic links with China. But in fact, since taking office, she has blown cold on the kind of deals with Chinese firms (for example in the nuclear power industry) that Osborne has been pushing.
And in Beijing she refused to sign a memorandum of understanding supporting Chinese president Xi Jinping’s “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI). Also known as the “New Silk Road”, this is a series of vast infrastructural projects to develop new routes for China’s imports and exports.
Currently Chinese trade is highly dependent on the narrow Straits of Malacca, which connect the Pacific and Indian oceans. They could be easily closed by the US Navy in the event of conflict between the US and China.
The BRI involves in particular carving out a new land route to Europe via Central Asia.
This is already disrupting the EU’s periphery in eastern and central Europe. China has started to do in this region what has been its practice in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America for years now. Relatively poor states are being offered loans and investments in exchange for signing up to big infrastructure projects linked to the BRI.
The result has been the emergence of the “16+1” grouping that brings 16 states in eastern and central Europe together with China. Brussels increasingly fears that this is creating an alternative centre of economic and political gravity for its eastern member states and potential member states.
Already there are claims that China’s influence can be seen in internal EU rows over what line to take over the territorial disputes it is embroiled in in the South China Sea and over new security restrictions on Chinese investment in Europe.
This shows that, at a moment when the EU is trying to present a facade of unity in the face of Brexit, the pressures are actually becoming stronger.
So in all probability Xi hoped that May, on the back foot over Brexit, could be pressured into signing up to the BRI. In the event, she didn’t. Partly this was probably not to antagonise the leading Western EU states at a delicate stage in the Brexit negotiations.
But it must also have been to keep in with the US. “The mood is that the US is gearing up to push back against China,” Matthew Goodman of the Center for Strategic Studies told the Financial Times.
Where Osborne felt confident enough to defy Obama in 2015, May has chosen to line up with Trump.
Even greater subservience to the US may well be the Tory stance after Brexit.