Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. World
  2. Asia
27 January 2017

Britain’s new foreign policy is putting the country on collision course with powerful enemies

Downing Street is betting a great deal on being able to win over Donald Trump.

By Stephen Bush

One of the more fact-retardant memes in Westminster is that Theresa May is cautious or indecisive. That George Osborne and Michael Gove are not in the Cabinet but are part-timing at BlackRock and the Times respectively ought to be all the evidence you need of that.

Most Prime Ministers would draw back from exiling so many rivals to the outer darkness, particularly when they only have a majority of 12. That May did not tells you something about her.

Her speech to Republican legislators in Philadelphia, likewise, was full of the bold strokes that have accompanied her premiership. There is a lot to go over in the speech – I’ve gone over some of the foreign policy ground here – but there’s one area in particular that I wanted to talk about: Britain’s changing policy towards China.

Under David Cameron and George Osborne, China policy was simple: human rights were out and trade was in. Both British investment in China and – more frequently – Chinese investment in Britain were an unalloyed good.

If the policy had a human face, it was that of Jim O’Neill.  The economist and longterm China-watcher was appointed who was appointed commercial secretary to the Treasury after Cameron’s 2015 win with a brief to help with Osborne’s two pet projects: the Northern Powerhouse and investment in China. O’Neill was hugely popular among civil servants at the Treasury as well as with his bosses. But he swiftly realised that under the new administration, China policy was headed in a very different direction, and resigned in September last year.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

So if “trade first, human rights eighteenth” is out, what is the new policy? The word among civil servants is that May, security trumps all other concerns: and she puts friendly relations with China on the wrong side of that particular calculation. That was behind the last minute wobble about whether or not to proceed with the development of Hinkley Point, which is jointly funded by the French company EDF and the Chinese.
And that’s why there will be no continuation of the Cameron-Osborne policy of increasing warmth towards China and why yesterday’s speech lumped the People’s Republic in with the new and revived enemies of the West: Islamic terrorism and Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Content from our partners
How materials innovation can help achieve net zero and level-up the UK
Fantastic mental well-being strategies and where to find them
Accelerating the take-up of electric vehicles

There are a couple of things to note here. The first is that, in many ways, the position most suitable for Britain, as far as narrow self-interest is concerned, the lucrative position for Britain to take is the Cameron-Osborne position on steroids. As the British constitution gives the Prime Minister the right to make and unmake treaties without recourse to Parliament, the human rights implications can be largely ignored by Downing Street.  (It would also insulate Britain should Trump’s anti-China rhetoric lead to a trade war between the two nations.)

Instead, May has opted for a decisive – and high-risk – position on China. It’s riskier still when you look at what the British government is saying on Russia. Now that Donald Trump is in the White House, and with the three most likely candidates for the French president – Marine Le Pen, Francois Fillon and to a lesser extent Emanuel Macron – all sympathetic to Russia, the United Kingdom is far and away the most hostile military power to Vladimir Putin out there.

Downing Street’s big bet is that Theresa May can convince Donald Trump that Putin represents a real threat not just in his immediate “neighbourhood” of Syria and Ukraine, where Trump has said he sees Russia as the solution, not the problem. But if they’re wrong, Britain under May has put itself at odds with both Putin and China’s Xi Jinping.