Media reports from the UK suggest that the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson is working on a proposal that will remove China’s state-owned China General Nuclear Power Group (CGNPG) company from the construction of a £20 billion nuclear reactor on the UK’s eastern coast. This potential removal of China from the country’s nuclear industry comes on the heels of a recent downward spiral in UK-China bilateral relations, sparked by China’s wanton counter-sanctions on UK’s parliamentarians and think tanks earlier this year. However, Beijing can expect London only to harden its anti-China stance with the UK now being firmly part of the AUKUS security alliance focusing on the Indo-Pacific.
Way back in 2015, China’s CGNPG had secured a deal with the UK government, under which it had agreed to finance and install three nuclear reactors in Hinkley, Sizewell, and Bradwell, in collaboration with France’s EDF. The deal came when the UK was desperately looking to renew its aging nuclear power plants but needed foreign investment to pay the enormous upfront costs involved. In many analysts’ view, this UK-China nuclear deal was the golden period of the bilateral relationship when the UK was willing to let the Chinese enter the critical national infrastructure like the nuclear industry, despite security concerns. Since then, however, bilateral relations have soured.
A survey of events since 2018 demonstrates that China’s pursuit of an aggressive foreign policy as seen from its threatening posture with neighbours, its reckless actions in Hong Kong, and repression in Tibet and Xinjiang, have only crystalised Britain’s threat perception.
As a former British colony, the Chinese actions in Hong Kong in 2019-20 particularly nettled the UK, which had handed over the territory to China in 1997 on the promise that its unique administrative mechanism and autonomy would be preserved under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ model. However, Beijing’s repression through the draconian National Security Law forced the UK to ultimately open a pathway for citizenship for Hong Kong residents with the right to a British National Overseas passport.
Another issue that embittered the relationship was the discovery in 2020 by the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre of a ‘nationally significant’ vulnerability in the Huawei telecom equipment installed in the country. Again, way back in 2005, the UK had allowed Huawei to enter the country to upgrade its telecom network. However, the growing security and espionage concerns worldwide over Huawei’s equipment further reinforced British concerns, forcing the government to impose an early ban on installing Huawei equipment in the country’s 5G network. The government also approved the National Infrastructure and Investment Act, which scrutinises foreign investment in the UK, notably from China.
These developments rattled Beijing but did not change its intransigent attitude.
In March 2021, China imposed counter-sanctions on five UK parliamentarians and four other citizens, the most vocal anti-China voices in the country. The sanctions were in response to the European Union and British sanctions on China for its human rights abuses in Xinjiang against Uighurs. The sanctioned individuals and their immediate family members are prohibited from entering Chinese territory, and Chinese citizens and institutions are prohibited from doing business with them.
These Chinese actions sparked pushback from the UK parliament. In June, the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, in its report, noted that autocratic nations like China are seeking to manipulate, undermine, or even break up multilateral organisations, such as the World Health Organization and Interpol. In addition, the report noted that China was increasingly using aggressive methods, including bilateral economic leverage, to coerce states in multilateral organisations to back its position.
This was followed by the publication of two reports pushing a hard-line stance towards China. A report from the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee titled “The UK and China’s security and trade relationship: A strategic void” observed that despite the shift in domestic mood, there remains considerable uncertainty over the government’s policy towards China. A few days later, another report from the China Research Group, a prominent parliamentary group, titled “The UK and China: Next Steps,” noted that Beijing’s increasingly aggressive approach to its domestic and foreign affairs had given Chinese Communist Party leaders newfound confidence that its authoritarian, highly centralised political system is superior to those of liberal democracies. It added that in the past one and a half years since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, many democratic countries, including the UK, have become alarmed by and critical of China’s behaviour under Xi Jinping. This anti-China mood culminated when the Chinese ambassador to Britain, Zheng Zeguang was barred from attending an event in the British parliament in mid-September, till Chinese sanctions against the members of parliament remained in place.
The formation of the historic AUKUS security pact has now firmly sealed UK’s anti-China orientation. But Beijing is only to blame for its unabashed pursuit of an aggressive foreign policy in its quest for global leadership. The emerging network of anti-China alliances has now effectively put a spanner in Beijing’s quest.