British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has come under pressure from rebels in his own party over UK ties with China. Photo: AFP

Not so long ago, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was facing a major Tory backlash aimed at expelling Huawei from the UK’s 5G market, only to see that the push from “concerned” members of the Conservative Party has now brought about the intended result.

At one point, it seemed that Britain (pre-Brexit shambles) was eager to work with and allow the pioneering Chinese tech giant to build parts of the country’s fifth-generation mobile network infrastructure on its soil, it took only a minority of Tory rebels to change Johnson’s position on the issue.

Empowered by US President Donald Trump (who was said to be “apoplectic” over Johnson’s ambitious plans), Iain Duncan Smith, David Davis, Damian Green and Owen Paterson among others successfully tabled an amendment to the Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Bill that orders the government to set a deadline of December 31, 2022, to end Huawei’s involvement, and prevents mobile-phone operators from using equipment from other suppliers deemed “high risk” by the National Cyber Security Centre.

To recall Smith’s words, “Given that so many nations are saying no to Huawei, this should be an opportunity for us to prioritize national security over the breakneck speed with which the deployment of 5G is being pressed on us.”

It is also worth noting that he compared Johnson’s former decision to allowing Nazi companies to develop British radar systems, an analogy that is extremely worrying in the context of the 75th anniversary of the victory over the Third Reich.

Supporting Smith’s rhetoric, Tom Tugendhat, the Conservative chairman of the House
of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, went on to say, “I think it’s a shared realization
of what it means for dependence on a business that is part of a state that does not share
our values.”

William Hague, a former foreign minister who now sits in the House of Lords, also made clear his view that Britain can’t be dependent on China as they “don’t play by our rules.”

What is interesting about the rebel Tories’ move is that it coincided with Washington’s review into the US security relationship with Britain after Johnson initially allowed Huawei to contribute to the development of Britain’s 5G network infrastructure.

The Telegraph reports how the US threatened to pull its RC-135 aircraft from their base in Suffolk and the withdrawal of active spies (because of concerns that their mobile phones and other devices could be comprised), which would seriously impact the “special relationship” between the US and UK.

“As the US and China compete and decouple, allies and businesses will be pressed to choose which they want to work with,” Neil O’Brien, a member of Parliament (MP) and the China Research Group’s secretary, told Business Insider at that time.

“There is a lot of bipartisan legislation coming through in the US aimed at securing its economy against the Chinese government, which will also have side effects for third countries like the UK and EU,” O’Brien added.

Knowing that a major goal of Boris Johnson’s government after Britain’s decoupling with the European Union was reaching a free-trade agreement with the US, it’s rather obvious with which country London is more eager to cooperate with.

According to the Henry Jackson Society, the UK is strategically dependent on China for 227 categories of goods, 57 of which are needed in key infrastructure.

In a report, the society said all members of the so-called Five Eyes security alliance – the UK, US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada – were too reliant on Beijing and should attempt to “decouple.”

“The Five Eyes’ concerning reliance on China – a country that does not share our values
and has different strategic priorities – has been exposed by the Covid-19 crisis,” said the executive director of the neoconservative think-tank, Alan Mendoza.

With Liam Fox MP, the UK’s former secretary of state for international trade and president of the Board of Trade Security at the Department for International Trade, asking, “How should we deal with China going forwards – especially since an inept, repressive officialdom has responded to international criticism with an aggressive misinformation campaign, completely misjudging the mood around the world?”, as well as accusing “China’s ruling Communist Party” of reacting “to the [Covid-19] crisis with the denial and repression common to every totalitarian state,” any attempt by Beijing to cooperate with London  seems to be worthless.

After former Tory prime minister David Cameron and Chinese President Xi Jinping promised a “golden era” in 2015, the current relations between the two countries don’t bode well for such an era coming any time soon.

With China “remaining an important export market for UK goods and services,” as Fox rightly highlighted, yet being constantly undermined by politicians who seem to be prioritizing President Trump’s “America First” agenda over their own country’s economic interest and good relations with the second-largest economy in the world, it may be the right time for Beijing to rethink its trade relations with Britain, which doesn’t seem to know yet where its true post-Brexit interest lies.

Asia Times Financial is now live. Linking accurate news, insightful analysis and local knowledge with the ATF China Bond 50 Index, the world's first benchmark cross sector Chinese Bond Indices. Read ATF now. 

Adriel Kasonta

Adriel Kasonta is a London-based foreign affairs analyst and commentator. He is the founder of AK Consultancy and editorial board member at the peer-reviewed Central European Journal of International and Security Studies (CEJISS) in Prague. Kasonta is a former chairman of the International Affairs Committee at Bow Group, the oldest conservative think tank in the UK.