UK’s May comes to China severely hobbled by Brexit


A top China politics news item of the day.

A little over two years ago, then-Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron, announced a “golden era” for UK-China relations. These days, the relationship has lost much of its shine.

  • Current PM Theresa May is heading to China for a three-day visit this week, visiting Wuhan, Beijing, and then Shanghai, the Guardian reports. She brings with her a delegation of 50 business leaders from companies including AstraZeneca, Jaguar Land Rover, and HSBC.
  • But “most observers agree Britain’s decision to leave the European Union has severely eroded both its negotiating position and its value to Beijing.”
  • France is now the focus of China in Europe, according to “one well-placed monitor of Chinese politics” cited in the Guardian.
  • Additionally, May will soon have to pick a side between “soft Brexit” and “clean break” proponents within her own Conservative Party, which will further reduce her already widely-doubted ability to lead a unified government, according to the Associated Press.
  • Beijing has never forgiven May for delaying the permit for a partially-Chinese funded nuclear power plant in the UK in 2016, which was her “first major strategic decision” as PM according to the Guardian.
  • Adding insult to injury, in Beijing’s eyes, is May’s refusal to formally endorse China’s Belt and Road Initiative. This was a “key demand” from Beijing for the trip, the Financial Times reports (paywall), and because of May’s refusal, “Chinese officials have reportedly even refused to answer calls from their British counterparts,” the Guardian says.

Despite the bad omens, officials are unwilling to let go of the gilded rhetoric.

  • Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to the UK, wrote an article (paywall) in the Telegraph on January 29 that promised “‘golden fruits’ across multiple areas, from the Belt and Road Initiative to financial services, scientific innovation, environmental protection, clean energy and bio-science.” (the whole text is also available on China Daily.)
  • May also messaged that her visit would “intensify the ‘golden era’ in UK-China relations,” the Guardian says.
  • At least one piece of good news for May from the trip has already been reported: carmaker Aston Martin is set to announce “investment deals in China this week that it will claim are worth more than £600m” ($849 million), Sky News reports, a boost to May’s vision of a “global Britain” that competes in China trade with the likes of Germany and France.