On Thursday, the Chinese government levied sanctions against 5 British Members of Parliament (MPs) who had been vocal against the Human Rights violations the Chinese government has caused to the minority Uyghur population in the Xinjiang province. This comes days after Boris Johnson’s government (in cooperation with the EU, US and Canada) had implemented sanctions against several chinese government officials due who were “perpetrators of gross human rights violations” in Xinjiang.
Beijing’s sanctions ban all five MP’s from entering China, Hong Kong or Macau, while also ordering an immediate freeze on any asset the politicians might have in China, and also forbids any Chinese national to engage in any business activities with them. Two of the MPs sanctioned, Tom Tugendhat and Neil O’Brien, lead the China Research Group in Parliament, which is dedicated to debating the ways the British government can address the growing rise of China.
According to the Chinese Embassy to the UK, these sanctions were imposed as a result of these politicians “maliciously spread disinformation and lies”, while condemning the sanctions levied by Western countries as “flagrant breaches in international law”.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson immediately expressed their support and solidarity with the sanctioned elected officials. Johnson expressed in a tweet that those citizens who have been sanctioned for criticizing the terrible human rights abuses ongoing in the Xinjiang province play a “vital role” at highlighting the conditions of the Uyghur population and that he “stands firmly with them”
The China Research Group also released a statement defending the job done by their group and called the actions taken by Beijing as “sinister”, while also warned on the hostile attitude Beijing is showing against any entity that expresses criticism towards the actions of the CCP. Saying that, while the sanctioned members will not be much affected by the sanctions, Beijing is using these punitive actions as a way to warn Western businesses about the consequences of contradicting Xi Jinping.
The Hong Kong crisis
Although this is the first time that the chinese government has decided to directly sanction British elected officials, it is not an isolated or random episode, it is the latest diplomatic fight on the growingly adversarial relationship between China and the United Kingdom.
The growing diplomatic gulf between both nations has grown significantly due to the ongoing political crisis in Hong Kong, where UK plays a fundamental role as one of the signing parts of the international treaty that sealed the devolution of the island to China and established the political status of self-determination and autonomy that had characterized Hong Kong over the last decades.
The British government had repeatedly shown concerns about the growing influence of Beijing towards the city’s internal political process, with tensions reaching a boiling point last year when the Beijing government decided to impose its sweeping National Security Law on June.
As a response, London decided to expand the issue of British National Overseas passports (BNOs), opening to up to 2.5 million citizens of Hong Kong a legal pathway for them to travel, live, and study in the UK. Beijing has responded by saying that it will no longer recognize those passports as valid documents, as it would “seriously infringe” China’s sovereignty and “interfere in Hong Kong’s affairs”
The issue of Hong Kong has not been the only one where 10 Downing Street is at logheads with the authorities in the Chinese Communist Party Politburo, with the government’s decision in 2020 to suspend the chinese tech giant Huawei to implement 5G technology in the country being a watershed moment on the growing tensions and suspicions between both countries.
The 5G decision, which came after much pressure from the Trump administration which forced PM Johnson to change his mind, is an illustration of the growing concern among many western nations about the security threats that the economic rise of China represent. A fact that has certainly captured the attention of politicians in Beijing, who wants to assert itself as a more decisive actor in the world.
Cooperation yet confrontation
The UK is not aiming at establishing a perpetual cycle of mistrust and conflict between themselves and the second-largest economy in the world, especially as Britain would be looking for trade everywhere after Brexit. Johnson’s approach towards Beijing is one of acknowledging the many challenges the rise of Chinese influence can bring to the liberal international world order established after the cold war, while also understanding that there should be some areas where cooperation is preferred.
This strategy was clearly outlined on the annual integrated review published by the government earlier this month, where they framed the objectives the country should pursue in its relationship with China as the following: enhancing its “China-facing” capabilities to ensure the defense of the national interest and values, maintaining a productive tradel relationship, and aiming for cooperation with Beijing in issues like climate change.
This mixt approach of confrontation and cooperation is not one that is followed by the UK alone, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken indicated to a similar strategy in his remarks after the Alaska summit with Beijing officials. Blinken said that the U.S-China relations would be “competitive where it should be, collaborative where it can be, and confrontational where it must be”, which is a very similar tone than that written in the UK’s Integrated Review.
Both the U.S. and the UK aim to keep a somewhat productive commercial relationship with China, while also confronting Beijing in the core aspects that are fundamental to the International Order.
Yet as the rest of the contentious Anchorage meeting and last Thursdays sanctions on British politicians show, finding that golden balance between competition, confronation, economic mutual benefit, and cooperation might be far much easier said than done.