Theresa May’s trip to China just highlights the UK’s diminished importance on the world stage

China’s ambitious plans in Africa and beyond are building alliances that make the UK increasingly irrelevant.

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If global leaders gain points for unrealistically optimistic comments, Theresa May is racking them up. Using a phrase coined by her predecessor, she has called this post-Brexit age “the golden era of UK-China relations”. Admittedly, when compared to Britain’s currently strained relationship with the EU, our trade relationship with China may seem more cordial. Since Monday, the UK government’s leaked Brexit impact analysis has raised even more questions as to whether, as we plunge ever deeper into the murky waters of trying to alienate our European allies, there can be any positive repercussions for the British economy.

So the Prime Minister’s three-day Chinese visit – complete with the largest business delegation that her office has ever taken on a foreign trip – has come at the right time for her to demonstrate her commitment to maintaining the UK’s global power status. Arguably, though, this desperate attempt to reinforce our “vital” ties with China is the wrong way to project the image of a strong and competent UK. May’s visit is unlikely to catalyse any drastic change in the Chinese governments attitudes towards the UK. We may be looking to “intensify” our strategic partnership with China, but we are blissfully oblivious to the reality of Chinese state interests.

Rather than focusing on gaining support from obvious places like Europe, China has long been building its influence in parts of the globe overlooked by the UK and its allies. Nothing has made this clearer than the recent news that the African Union headquarters, funded and built in 2012 entirely by Chinese state-owned enterprises, had been automatically transferring all the African Union’s data to servers in Shanghai every day for five years before the surveillance was discovered in 2017 by a data scientist. The donation of a new, state-of-the-art headquarters was intended as a tangible symbol of Chinese solidarity with the 54 member-states of the African Union, and the discovery that African information was being clandestinely relayed to China will not destroy those African-Chinese friendships. This is largely because of the context in which China’s indiscretion was revealed: At the same time as Donald Trump’s denigration of African immigrants as being from “sh*thole countries”, the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, was on a goodwill tour of Africa. When the two scandals are juxtaposed, it is clear that the United States considers Africa irrelevant in the global arena, but China bugging the African Union headquarters could almost be read as an acknowledgement of Africa’s significance.

China’s African Union transgression illustrates the huge discrepancy between how Britain still perceives its position as a world power and China’s focus on allying with emerging economies. Historically, great powers like the UK, have viewed Africa solely in terms of extractive or geostrategic value. In stark contrast, China has been cultivating its bilateral and multilateral links to Africa since the Cold War. Mulatu Teshome Wirtu, the current President of Ethiopia, where the African Union is based, received his bachelor’s degree from Peking University, and the country’s cultural and linguistic association with China has barely diminished since. As the headquarters of the African Union, Ethiopia’s seeming complicity in China’s surveillance of the headquarters – the telecommunications company through which the intelligence was sent to Shanghai is Ethiopia’s sole ISP and has been used to control civilian access to social media during protests – indicates the extent of Chinese influence on some African state governments.

Miranda Melcher, a China-Africa and civil wars researcher, tells me that “the lack of response beyond denial from China and African countries on [the bugging scandal] is symptomatic of rising authoritarianism across the African continent, most importantly from regional leaders like Ethiopia (headquarters of the AU), Rwanda (considered a model country), and of course the traditionally authoritarian places like Sudan, Zimbabwe, etc. Maybe this is something the pro-democracy West should pay attention to: why are these formerly more democratic countries changing their tunes?”

Critics of May’s desire to build an intimate partnership with China could point out the hypocrisy of the UK government trying to ingratiate itself with the authoritarian regime. In this week’s press conference, spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry, Hua Chunying stated that China would “wait and see” the outcome of May’s trip before determining the closeness of UK-Chinese relations, and that any conversations about human rights issues “must be based on equality and mutual respect”. Hua emphasised China’s desire for the UK government to endorse their One Belt and One Road Initiative, an infrastructure project aimed at developing a globalised Sino-centric trade network. May has responded cautiously, with a spokesperson saying that she would wait for confirmation that the programme met “international standards” before committing UK approval. Still, this may not be enough to appease those who denounce May’s aversion to broaching China’s terrible and deteriorating human rights record.

While the UK delegation tries to showcase the best of British industry, they do not appear to simply be courting Xi Jinping’s government, but also to be trying to convince the EU of the UK’s continued utility. Melcher said of May’s trip: “I do not think this trip matters much at all, except perhaps to confirm to the Chinese that Britain isn't going to be a problem going forward [as China expands its global network]”. May’s reception in China is, then, unsettlingly perfunctory.

In contrast to the UK, where Brexit is heightening tensions amongst our allies, China’s network and influence are on the rise. Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Beijing, just prior to May’s trip, signalled the EU’s decision to strengthen ties with China, and was more positively received by the Chinese than the British delegation. All of this serves to disprove the traditional Western understanding of China as being less important to the global system than Britain. At this point, rather than magnanimously extending the possibility of increased cooperation to the Chinese state, the UK is awkwardly playing diplomatic catch-up. Post-Brexit, to look in the mirror and still see the British Empire will be problematic. If we are to maintain our relevance in the international realm, UK foreign policy must take into account the reality that rising powers like China see us as increasingly extraneous to activity on the world stage.

Anjuli R. K. Shere writes about science. She was a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman.

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