News analysis

US looks askance as Britain cosies up to China

In the weeks leading up to Chinese President Xi Jinping's first state visit to the United States last month, Washington was talking openly about the possibility of imposing sanctions on Chinese entities responsible for launching cyber attacks - a sign it would not be prepared to paper over differences.

In the lead-up to Mr Xi's visit to Britain this week, the message could not have been more different.

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne last month visited Xinjiang, in China's north-western region - where minority Uighurs are said to be persecuted by Beijing - and spoke only about trade, a clear indication that London was prepared to close an eye to Beijing's human rights record.

The optics and mood around the two state visits - just a month apart - have made it increasingly clear that Britain is cozying up to China. And the US is getting slightly uncomfortable.

After all, this is the second time this year that the country the US considers a key strategic partner has broken ranks. In March, the British government shocked the White House by joining the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), an institution opposed by the US at the time.

The current Britain-China tete-a-tete also comes as the US is mulling over symbolic military operations in the South China Sea that could raise tensions with China.

US officials are said to be privately critical of the British stance, which they see as a willingness to turn a blind eye to Chinese transgressions, as long as British economic interests are served. Of primary concern now, say US observers, is the issue of what the British endgame is.

If the current embrace of China is simply motivated by practical and economic matters, then Washington would not be unduly perturbed.

Said Ms Yun Sun, senior associate with the East Asia Programme at the Stimson Centre: "If the UK's policy transpires into a different strategic alignment choice of the country in the long run, which I don't think it will, it will be problematic... Allies have differences all the time, but their shared values and common interests are the anchors of the alliance. That has not changed in the case of US-UK relations."

She added that the US has also not made it a point to stop its allies from forging better relationships.

Indeed, South Korea and many South-east Asian allies are fostering close economic ties with Beijing.

And while analysts say the Americans might privately frown on Britain's actions, the visit will produce no public response or change of tack in the short term.

"British hedging on China will not affect the policy course Washington takes on China overall, and especially the South China Sea," said Mr Alexander Sullivan, adjunct fellow in the Asia-Pacific Security Programme at the Centre for a New American Security.

"While it would be nice to have London standing up for maritime law, I don't think anybody is relying on them to play a major role in the issue anyway, so this summit is unlikely to affect events there."

What happens in the long run is a trickier question, though most observers agree the British will not be able to cultivate a new "special relationship" with China without harming the one it has with the US.

Part of the problem, said Ms Sun, is that London's actions will eventually force change in the US. She said: "When our key allies run to China and seek friendship, it, of course, affects our position and considerations. In the case of AIIB, the broad welcoming attitude towards the bank has forced the US to revise its position, and be more open-minded and less antagonistic about it. This, in the long run, will affect the power equilibrium between the US and China."

Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Elizabeth Economy similarly questioned, in a blog, what Britain's global role might be should it align itself closely to China. "If indeed Beijing is to be London's new best friend in the West, what does that mean for defence consultations between London and its traditional treaty allies? Will the UK become a proxy for Beijing in discussions about security in the Asia-Pacific?"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 23, 2015, with the headline 'US looks askance as Britain cosies up to China'. Print Edition | Subscribe