A British naval officer looks up at the fluttering White ensign flag hoisted at the stern during the Commissioning Ceremony for the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth at HM Naval Base in Portsmouth, southern England on December 7, 2017. Photo: AFP/Richard Pohle
A British naval officer looks up at the fluttering White ensign flag hoisted at the stern during the Commissioning Ceremony for the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth at HM Naval Base in Portsmouth, southern England on December 7, 2017. Photo: AFP / Richard Pohle

PRAGUE – Britain’s government is leaning in rather than bowing out as Asia’s geopolitical environment becomes increasingly fraught amid rising US and China tensions. That new push could soon put the former colonial power at loggerheads with China.

London is now trying to rally a group of 10 democracies, namely the G7 states plus Australia, South Korea and India, to provide alternative sources of 5G technology other than that supplied by the controversial Chinese tech giant Huawei.

The US and others have argued Huawei represents a security risk, as it allegedly builds in backdoors to its technology to carry out surveillance and potentially espionage for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Huawei has consistently denied the allegations.

At the same time, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said London won’t turn “a blind eye” to Beijing’s plan to introduce a new feared security law for Hong Kong, whose autonomy Britain is supposed to uphold until 2047 following the city’s handover to China in 1997.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, while referring to himself as “friendly, clear-eyed” and “a Sinophile”, last weekend wrote in the Times that his government would amend legislation to allow almost 3 million Hongkongers  holding British National Overseas’ passports the right to move to the United Kingdom, an announcement that elicited Beijing’s angry response.

China’s Foreign Minister Zhao Lijian warned this week: “We advise the UK to step back from the brink, abandon their Cold War mentality and colonial mindset.”

It is thus shaping into a litmus test for whether the Conservative government will stick to its pledge that once out of the European Union (EU), following years of delays after the 2016 Brexit referendum, the UK will play a more active and activist role in international affairs, a policy touted as “global Britain.”  

To be sure, these are not happy times for the UK. Its government faces domestic and international criticism for its perceived as absymal handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Late lockdowns, weak track-and-tracing and Johnson’s early frivolous attitude to the outbreak in March, which left him hospitalized with Covid-19, has seen Britain’s death toll rise to one of the highest in Europe at 39,700 as of June 4.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a remote press conference on the Covid-19 pandemic, June 3, 2020. Photo: AFP/Andrew Parsons/10 Downing Street

Amid the misery, Britian’s full exit from the EU, in which the transitory period is supposed to end in January 2021, has been delayed as the pandemic shut down talks for a negotiated exit.

London’s hope to advance trade deals with its other major partners, notably the United States, Japan and China, have also been delayed. 

“Brexit and the government’s response to Covid-19 have damaged the UK’s reputation for competence,” says Bill Hayton, associate fellow with the Asia-Pacific Program at Chatham House, a UK-based think tank.

“Our choice to pursue policies that will damage the country and failure to protect our population has left many people around the world utterly mystified,” he added.

That wasn’t always the case. For decades, the UK has maintained close ties to Japan and China, which invest more in the UK than in any European state, and has more recently expanded its reach to other parts of developing Asia.

Britain accounted for 12% of the EU’s trade with Southeast Asian states trade in 2018, the fourth-largest of the bloc’s members.

London also maintains close relations with its former Asian colonies and its Commonwealth members, Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei. It has a naval base in Brunei and last year said it was planning to develop another in Southeast Asia, rumored to be either Singapore or Malaysia.

It takes part in intelligence sharing partnerships with Malaysia and Singapore as part of the Five Power Defense Arrangements, and has joined the US and France in freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea, in a bid to uphold international rules that have irked China.

After the Brexit referendum, the UK stepped up its diplomatic visits to Asia, and in February opened a new Permanent Mission to the Southeast Asian bloc in Jakarta.

Its soft power is also immense. English remains a dominant language across Asia, especially in the business world, while Britain’s universities have close ties with Asian institutes.

In the latest Soft Power 30 Index, conducted by communications consultancy firm Portland, Britain came in second place for its global soft power, higher than the US and China, though it that was down from first place in previous years.

“In 2015, Britain was seemingly custom-built for success in the world of early 21st Century foreign affairs,” the report noted. But Brexit has dented that. Not knowing how the exit from the EU will end, “it is hard to fully discern the would-be implications for Britain’s global role going forward and its subsequent comparative soft power,” the report stated.

Demonstrators sport colonial Hong Kong flags during a protest against what they call Beijing's interference in local politics and the rule of law. Photo: Tyrone Siu, Reuters
Demonstrators sport colonial Hong Kong flags during a protest against what they saw as Beijing’s interference in local politics and the rule of law. Photo: Twitter

The lack of clarity is one of the most difficult issues for Britain’s Asian partners, too. Many Asian governments are hesitant to enter detailed negotiations over individual trade pacts with Britain until its separation from the EU is clearer.

Hiroaki Nakanishi, chairman of the Japan Business Federation, said in February that talks between the UK and Japan for a new trade deal “depend on how negotiations with the European Union are settled.”

Other countries, including China, are also taking a wait-and-see approach, Oliver Turner, a lecturer in international relations at the University of Edinburgh, wrote recently in East Asia Forum.

Indeed, it is possible that London could ask the EU to extend its transitory period for longer than January 2021, which would peeve Asian governments which are keen for answers from British negotiators about how to move forward with talks.    

There are also reports that Asian governments are frustrated that London, four years after the Brexit referendum, is still blue-sky thinking.

Britain is reportedly still considering whether to try to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a 10-member free trade pact that includes Japan and several Southeast Asian states, but that remains up in the air.

British officials believe that successful negotiations with Tokyo over a trade pact will ease the UK’s entrance into the CPTPP, which International Trade Secretary Liz Truss told Al Jazeera last month was “a key UK priority, which will help us diversify our trade and grow the economy.”

Also up in the air is whether Britain can simply copy-and-paste the trade deals that the EU has struck recently with Japan, Singapore and Vietnam with other Asian states.

Some British officials have opined that doing so will be easy, though naturally partner countries argue that given the relative size of the EU economy versus Britain’s alone they would want more concessions from the UK added into any copied trade pact.   

Intensifying geopolitics will influence Britain’s future role.

Naval officers atop the United Kingdom’s HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier headed for the South China Sea. Photo: Twitter

After the Brexit referendum in 2016, the previous Conservative government under premier Theresa May proclaimed that leaving the EU would create a new “global Britain.”

According to May and her colleagues – including Johnson, who previously served as Foreign Secretary – leaving the bloc didn’t signify Britain’s departure from global politics, but instead showed London’s desire to strengthen its relations with countries outside of Europe, notably those in Asia.

For some commentators, “global Britain” reeked of a longing to return to its colonial heydays or merely window-dressing for leaving the European bloc.

But one bonus for Britain is that it isn’t viewed by most Asian states as a superpower, nor is it seen as engaging in the sort of tit-for-tat conducted by the US and China, says Hayton.  

“The UK is no longer in a position to dictate to other governments; it is just one state among many,” he said. “As a result it is more likely to be seen as a benign actor in the region. They can all share their experiences in coping with the emerging threat from China and work together as and when their interests align.”

Much depends on what role Britain tries to carve out for itself in the increasingly fraught superpower contest between China and the US, traditionally its closest ally.

Indeed, in recent weeks the UK government has taken an increasingly tougher stance towards Beijing, namely because of its disinformation and propaganda campaign since the Covid-19 pandemic and the latest escalation of tensions in Hong Kong.   

On the one hand, the China issue may consume the British government’s motives in Asia, with London focusing its attention on responding to Beijing at the expense of relations with other Asian partners, in a similar way that critics argue American policy in Asia is now conducted.  

On the other hand, however, with US President Donald Trump seemingly ready to vacate multilateral diplomacy, including his decision last month to take the US out of the World Health Organization, Britain has the chance to partly fill the void.  

In Asia, Britain has the “reputation of being willing to uphold international rules and norms,” wrote Turner. “However, the international landscape is evolving and Covid-19 is intensifying questions about future global leadership and where rules of international engagement will be written.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and US President Donald Trump. Photo: AFP / Peter Nicholls

Back in January, Prime Minister Johnson risked a major diplomatic spat with the US after he said that Britain would go ahead with its plan to allow the controversial Chinese tech giant Huawei to develop parts of its 5G network.

Last month, however, reports emerged that Johnson’s government was preparing to scale back Huawei’s involvement. A British newspaper reported that Johnson had also instructed ministers to decrease the UK’s reliance on Chinese imports, namely for medical supplies and in strategic sectors, in a new policy known as “Project Defend.” 

Speaking in May, Foreign Secretary Raab said that “no doubt, we can’t have business as usual after this crisis,” adding that: “We’ll have to ask the hard questions about how it came about and how it could have been stopped earlier.”

The China Research Group, a new parliamentary caucus recently setup by Conservative MPs and modeled on the Brexit-supporting European Research Group, is pushing for a tougher stance against Beijing.

“The idea that China is a ‘risk to be managed’ appears to be being replaced by the idea that China is a threat,” said Hayton, adding that this idea has been heightened by Beijing’s Hong Kong security law announcement.

Many believe this will erode Hong Kong’s autonomy, especially over law and rule, and wipe out the concept of “one nation, two systems” that was agreed by the UK when it handed back the city to China in 1997.

Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong before the UK handover, has called on the UK government to take a stiff response, considering that Britain was the main party to the agreement that gave Hong Kong autonomy from Beijing until 2047.  

Speaking to the Times, Patten argued that London has “a moral, economic and legal duty” to stand up for the autonomous rights of Hong Kong, yet he noted that “the real danger is that we are entirely limp on this.”

As tensions have risen between London and Beijing, Chinese media have been keen in recent weeks to stress London’s allegedly woeful response to the Covid-19 crisis.

Recent headlines from the Chinese state-run tabloid Global Times include, “UK needs another miracle out of Covid-19 mess” and “UK should worry about its Covid-19 situation instead of HK affairs.”

Police stand guard on a road to deter protesters from blocking roads in the Mong Kok district of Hong Kong on May 27, 2020. Photo: AFP/Isaac Lawrence

But questions are rising about how serious London is about shifting its position on China, and whether it is simply an effort to distract attention away from the government’s widely-criticized handling of the Covid-19 pandemic which originated in China.

Richard Graham, an MP and All Party Parliamentary China Group chairman, told the BBC this month that he worries China is becoming a national scapegoat, “just as the EU was a convenient scapegoat in recent years,” and that MPs must consider the needs of their constituents.

“The most important thing is going to be jobs. And in that sense, having a strong partnership with China makes absolute sense,” he said.