Slow boast to China
It had taken some time, but he got there in the end. Several weeks after the coronavirus outbreak began (and a full fortnight after his father Stanley let slip the Chinese were ‘concerned’ at his lack of direct contact), Boris Johnson finally spoke on the phone to President Xi Jinping today.
No.10 told us that the PM “offered his sympathies” for those affected, while the president thanked the UK for its “support”, including the donation of vital medical equipment. But what really caught my eye was the line that the pair “resolved to work together across a range of issues including strengthening the economic partnership, to benefit the people of both China and the UK”.
Normally that would be the usual trade links bromide that accompanies any chinwag with the Chinese. Yet given the events of the past few weeks, it felt like diplospeak for China’s growing satisfaction with the Johnson government. Beijing was delighted the PM gave the go-ahead to Chinese telecoms firm Huawei to play a role in UK 5G phone networks, despite huge pressure from Donald Trump to ban it outright.
Last week it emerged that both governments have also had preliminary talks about Beijing’s state-owned railway firm helping to build the HS2 rail project quicker and cheaper than planned. And for all the UK intelligence agencies talk of Huawei as a ‘high risk vendor’ that should be kept away from nuclear submarine sites, the fact is that Britain already has deals for Chinese firms to build a new nuclear power station in Essex, with its eyes on others.
For Johnson, this is in many ways what Brexit is all about. Just as he’s trumpeted the merits of a new trade deal with the US, he’s very keen indeed on increasing trade with China from its current $90bn a year (a fraction of China-Germany trade of $220bn a year). Just 3.5% of the UK’s total exports go to China. Beijing also expects that the UK will provide healthy competition for the EU when competing for direct investment from Chinese companies. As the coronavirus is laying bare, many UK universities rely on Chinese students for an income too.
There are more than a few Tory MPs nervous about cosying up to what is still one of the most authoritarian regimes in the world. Natural sympathy for China’s current plight should not blind the PM to the dangers of Beijing’s worldview, they mutter. Surely democratic India should be our focus instead, they argue (though prime minister Modi is making that a tougher sell than usual right now). Some Labour MPs believe that this could also open up a vulnerable flank for Johnson too, under a new leader: imagine Labour saying they’d be tougher on China (and Russia) than the Tories? A bit of economic nationalism could work for the Opposition.
Of course, China’s huge scale makes it impossible to ignore, not least in the field of climate change. That’s why Johnson and Xi today discussed the coming COP26 summit in Glasgow (it’s understood the PM gently issued a formal invitation to Xi). Stanley Johnson had raised with the Chinese ambassador this month the idea of his son making a trip to China’s biodiversity summit in Kunming. It’s unclear if that was part of their call today, but the PM (like Cameron and May before him) will be keen on making a trip as soon as he can.
As it happens, Donald Trump too phoned Xi in recent days. Always in awe of a strongman, the president praised his counterpart’s leadership and ‘discipline’ in responding to the outbreak. Some in the US think his softer tone is about reassuring financial markets worried about coronavirus and about getting – yes you guessed it – a workable trade deal with Beijing. It could after all prove a key electoral weapon, ahead of his re-election in November.
Given that Trump was apparently ‘apoplectic’ with Johnson over the Huawei decision (and given his chief of staff is due in No.10 on Wednesday to meet Dominic Cummings to remind him of that displeasure), his own conciliatory tone seems as quixotic as ever. But it would be richly ironic if the White House now decided that trade trumps everything after all.
The real difficulty for the PM is that he knows that both US and Chinese trade with the UK is currently dwarfed by its trade with the EU. And the more Brussels cuts up rough, the more leverage Washington and Beijing have in trying to extract better terms out of Britain. Avoiding that three-way squeeze really could be what defines Johnson’s premiership. Read more