Since the referendum to leave the EU passed in June, apprehension surrounds the UK on multiple fronts, foreign and domestic. Speculation surrounds foreign relationships, trade agreements, and defense policy. In addition, the new leadership within the UK is still settling into 10 Downing Street, following the resignation of David Cameron. One relationship that is not immune to speculation and uncertainty is the relationship between the United Kingdom and China, especially in regards to defense relations. The future of UK-Chinese defense relations is closely tied to economic cooperation between the two states.. Economics and defense are not mutually exclusive for the Chinese government, and China is interested in maintaining its economic ties to European trade and cooperating with the UK. China is also highly invested in increasing growth, gaining influence in the world, and planning its defense policy, as exemplified by the building of islands in the South China Sea to enforce its resource claims in the region.
On the other hand, the future of the UK defense policy, along with UK strength and structure, is surrounded with uncertainty and will likely undergo some changes. The UK imports large amounts of military technology from the United States and other countries. With Brexit forcing the UK into trade unpredictability, many trade agreements will have to be redone, and the defense industry will need to ensure that all agreements can be made and implemented smoothly. However, more doubt lies in the future of the UK’s defense policy, due to the change in Prime Minister. Former Prime Minister, David Cameron, was a staunch supporter of the defense sector and raised the budget last year to increase military spending. Theresa May is a supporter of the UK renewal of the Royal Navy’s nuclear submarines, and she is keeping Michael Fallon on as defense secretary, in order to maintain stability in the military (1). Although Prime Minister May is attempting to ensure some military consistency, her defense and foreign policy is still unclear, as her appointment to Prime Minister was rather quick. This means that the UK’s defense relations are much more likely to change, especially with the UK leaving the EU.
Brexit was mainly passed for domestic reasons, as many felt that the middle class of the UK was being drained by a unified Europe. In addition, the British people also felt that there was a loss in British identity, as the once most powerful state in the world had become bogged down by union with 27 other European countries, forcing the UK to support fiscally failed states, such as Spain and Greece. Although the referendum mainly passed for domestic prosperity, Britain may now look to other parts of the world in its shift of foreign and defense policy. Instead of directing defense resources towards the EU, Britain now has the opportunity to become involved in other regions in the world.
China’s defense policy is highly related to their economic policy, as protecting their economics interests and their growth in the world stage is their primary goal. For this reason, UK-China defense relations are strained by the UK’s referendum to exit the EU. China and the UK’s relationship seemed to be at its best after President Xi Jingping’s visit in 2015. During the visit, economic cooperation was the cornerstone, as the People’s Bank of China announced it would be issuing debt bonds in Yuan in London, the first time China has issued debt anywhere outside its borders (2). This was a big announcement for UK-Chinese cooperation, which would likely extend to defense cooperation, as economic ties often include closer defense relations, because of common goals and interests. This is a historic shift; the UK and China historically have not always been on great terms, largely due to British imperialism. In the 1800s, Britain and China were involved in two opium wars, in which Britain was victorious and gained control over trade routes and territories in China (3). In addition, Britain claimed Hong Kong as a colony until 1997. Due to this history, and now the UK’s exit from the EU, defense and economic cooperation will slow.
UK-Chinese defense relations are not conventional like those of close allies. China sees the UK as a great economic opportunity for investment, and a gateway to access European markets. But since the UK is exiting the EU, China will likely not prioritize aligning itself with UK as it has in the past. China would much rather gain economic access to all of Europe rather than just the United Kingdom. Defense relations will likely follow the trends of China and the UK’s economic relationship. Another reason why the UK is not likely to align defensively in the future is historical and current alliances. The United States is uneasy about Chinese intervention in the UK, which is well within the US’s historical sphere of influence, especially after the United Kingdom joined the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (4). Prior to Brexit, the UK had to deal with the tug of war between allies, European influence, and opportunities to increase economic and defense cooperation with China. In addition, there are many instances where the Chinese government will use leverage of defense related issues with economic issues, as it has in the UN Security Council. The Security Council is a great example of alliances playing a large role in defense relations between the two countries. During UN Security Council disputes, the UK aligns with the United States because of historical, defensive, economic, and cultural reasons, while China often votes against the US or with Russia. This indicates that UK-China defense relations will continue to be hindered by existing alliances, at least within the UN.
Ultimately, much of the uncertainty regarding defense relations between China and the UK lies in the new leadership of the United Kingdom. David Cameron’s resignation did not signal stability to Beijing, and was a large step back from the progress made in 2015. It is unclear in the early stages of the new UK government whether Theresa May will increase economic and defense relations with China, at the cost of improved relations with other allies. China will also likely look towards doing business with Brussels, in order to gain more access to the rest of Europe, rather than focus on the UK. The coming months will decrease uncertainty regarding the UK’s foreign and defensive policy around the world, as the new government settles in. However, China may look elsewhere, due to the uncertainty Brexit brings.
(1) Chuter, Andrew. "UK Shuffle Spells Uncertainty for Industry." Defense News 18 July 2016: 1+. Print.
(2) Le Corre, Philippe. "China's Offensive in London." Foreign Affairs. N.p., 05 Apr. 2016. Web. 24 July 2016. <https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2016-04-05/chinas-offensive-london>.
(3) Pletcher, Kenneth. "Opium Wars." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 24 July 2016. <https://www.britannica.com/topic/Opium-Wars>.
(4) Mody, Seema. "China Is Horning in on USA's 'special Relationship' with UK." CNBC. N.p., 29 June 2016. Web. 24 July 2016. <http://www.cnbc.com/2016/06/29/china-invests-in-uk-as-special-relationship-with-usa-falters.html>.
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