A Pivot to China or Just a Pivot?

Much comment has been made about President Xi’s visit, with claims of selling out both the jobs of steelworkers and the human rights of minorities in the PRC, alongside others regarding the commercial benefits.  The most interesting comments in my view however, have come from across the Atlantic, with, for example, Foreign Policy magazine saying:

“That has plenty of observers in the United States and the U.K. fretting that Osborne’s courtship of China threatens the decades-old special relationship that has long served as the keystone of the trans-Atlantic alliance. While the White House publicly downplays the significance of the Sino-British embrace — “the United States welcomes strong relations between our allies and China,” press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday — many U.S. diplomats are privately said to be “incandescent” with rage at Britain. And many in Britain, from former officials to current opposition politicians, have excoriated what they see as a British sell-out to Beijing.”


Considering the Obama administrations on well publicised “pivot” to Asia”, it might be argued that Cameron and Osborne are merely following their lead.  I would however like to put a different perspective on it.  

Since Margaret Thatcher’s election victory in 1979, Britain, under both Conservative and Labour administrations has followed an essentially similar foreign policy: junior partner to the USA in global matters while trying to drag the EU in a more free-market, pro-NATO, neo-liberal direction.  While most people will not remember, or at least not remember well, anything different, this was not always the case.  While I do not wish to delve into the into the policy of “European Balance of Power” that had dominated Britain’s foreign policy for centuries until World War I, during the intervening 65 years the policy was much more multi-polar.  While not always successful (notably the failure to prevent the circumstances that led to World War II), it was nuanced.  Clement Attlee tried to sail a middle ground between the USA and USSR, at least to begin with., and in 1950 the UK was the first western government to recognise the People’s Republic of China.  The Conservative administrations of the 1950s and early 1960s tried to combine decolonisation with an effort to turn the Commonwealth into an economic relationship and one into which the European efforts at integration (EFTA and EEC) might be combined.  Harold Wilson in the 1960s avoided entanglement in Vietnam, while many of the difficulties in the negotiations for joining the EEC by Wilson and Heath and subsequent re-negotiation by Wilson revolved around ongoing trade relationships with Commonwealth members.

So does this week’s visit by President Xi mark a pivot to a more diverse foreign policy?  Maybe not by itself but let us look at other events:

  • The UK was the first western country to apply to join the Chinese sponsored Asian Infrastructure Development Bank in March 2015, at a time when America was rather hostile to what it saw as a rival to the US-led World Bank.
  • The current government’s policy of re-negotiation of Britain’s EU membership (whether it is successful or not) is aimed at somewhat loosening these ties.
  • Philip Hammond re-opened the UK embassy in Tehran in August and immediately made efforts to strengthen trade ties with Iran, while Washington remains much more cautious.

Next month sees the visit of India’s Prime Minister Modi to the UK, and possibly a similarly warm welcome as given to President Xi.

Creating a more multi-dimensional foreign policy will not be easy, but if it can be achieved, it may well offer many benefits.


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