As Beijing and the world await the passage of American warships in the South China Sea, contested between China and six neighbors, Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit to the United Kingdom has revealed new political, potential developments.
Yet more than any other bilateral relationship, it has two sides: the more obvious to understand but more difficult to develop Chinese side, and the less obvious to understand but easier to develop British side.
For China, the prize is obvious. It offsets the lukewarm results of Xi’s recent trip to America and opens a new window to the West—not with the strong and energetic US, wary of China’s expansion, but with old England, no longer an empire, but knowledgeable of all the old Western imperial tricks and the former rival and mentor of the US.
The UK could then help China with its complicated ties with America and also tutor Beijing in the difficult art of becoming a true global power.
For China, this could be the meaning of the joint statement underscoring “a complete and global (quanmian quanqiu de) strategic partnership for the 21st century.”
China did not sign “a complete and global” partnership with any other country although we don’t know the actual scope; for instance, if it includes military and intelligence cooperation and to what degree.
Moreover, the two countries “acknowledged (rentong) the respective political systems.” For Beijing, this a massive achievement in ties with a Western country, since there has so far been at least a shadow of distaste for the Chinese political system, and Beijing was always concerned of Western attempts to topple its government.
In China this statement means that from at least one Western country there is no longer open or hidden pressure to change its political system. This will also have an impact in Hong Kong, where the British are still influential and Beijing is concerned about student protests, and it could have an impact on other Western countries, especially in Europe.
If the UK did it, then others might follow, and America’s adamant position about the Chinese Communist Party might be put into a different perspective.
Xi’s success is without precedent: He is the first leader of the Chinese Communist Party to get a Western country to offer what may amount to approval of the CCP rule of China. Nobody else managed that. Even in the times of US-China semi-alliance against the USSR during the Cold War, Washington never shed its suspicions of the CCP.
For China, however, the situation is less clear and easy as it is moving into unchartered waters and unsure about how to proceed in the political scene dominated by western values unknown to the old Chinese mind-set, although it now has help from old England.
Certainly, the new ties with London just mean a renewed effort in foreign policy-strategy, which will also have an impact on the US and neighboring Asian countries. China might need to learn from the UK the difficult art of balance of power, ingrained in the Western tradition but alien to Chinese political heritage.
For the UK, the advantages are less clear, apart from the obvious business incentive of billions in Chinese investments and bilateral trade that should soon reach $100 billion total.
In fact, the new political ties with China may provide new bargaining chips to London. Squeezed between the US and the Germany-dominated EU, and deprived of its old empire, Britain was on the slippery slope of political irrelevance, buoyed by investments of rich and sometimes shady individuals in search of a fiscal semi-paradise.
Before Xi’s visit, the UK was clearly on the path of becoming a larger Switzerland, under siege by all kinds of political blackmail. The Scots threatened to leave England, taking their oil with them; the EU threatened to take away London’s financial centrality if the UK left the European Union; and Washington had earlier set aside its preferential dialogue with London, in favor of mighty Berlin, the virtual EU capital.
Now, the special “alliance” with China catapults the UK back to the center of Asia, the political and economic dynamo of the world. This takes back attention from the EU and the US, and of course draws even more attention to London from China’s Asian neighbors. In this, we are not clear about the exchanges between London and Washington, and what they told each other about Xi’s visit.
Britain’s future might be much clearer. The political charts are there, used for centuries by Venice, swinging in the Mediterranean between Christian and Muslim kingdoms, between the Holy Christian King of Spain and the Infidel Grand Sultan of the Turks.
Tiny, wily, and ingenious Venice managed for centuries to play the balance of power in the Mediterranean, and retained its might even well after its bread and butter (the Mediterranean trade) was replaced by new routes for wealth that went through the Atlantic, geographically off-limits to the Italian city.
After all, there has always been a strong invisible knot between London and Venice. It seems no small coincidence that at the beginning of the rise of England as a global empire, its poet and literary founder, William Shakespeare, must have considered the Venetian Republic the model, as he located several of his best plays there (The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, et cetera).
Now London can take a page from the Venetian book and play on a global scale what Venice played in the Mediterranean—firmly Western but buying and selling chips with anybody.
Of course, the US and the EU can still trump the Chinese card in Britain, but this might be politically and economically very expensive, as China is no small player, and London will always win. This happened in the 1560s and 1570s, before the Battle of Lepanto, when Venice turned its back on the Turks (who attacked its Mediterranean possessions), sided with its arch-enemies Genoa and Spain, and partly contained France’s ambitions. Yet after checking the Turks’ advance, Venice left the alliance with Spain and returned to neutral trade with Istanbul.
Of course, history will not repeat itself. Even if London is Venice, it is unclear who is the Spain, Genoa, France, or Turkish Empire of this era, and many things are just beginning to unfold. But neither is history negligible.
Still to see whether this new fledgling “alliance” has any hope of survival and growth, we shall wait for the test of the following days and how China, its neighbors and the world will react to the US warships in the South China Sea.
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