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China-U.S. v China-UK: Two Very Different Kinds Of Diplomacy

Barack Obama, David Cameron and Xi Jinping at the  70th annual UN General Assembly on Sept. 28
Barack Obama, David Cameron and Xi Jinping at the 70th annual UN General Assembly on Sept. 28
Zhang Yuanan

BEIJING — Over the past month President Xi Jinping made a state visit to the United States and to the United Kingdom. In the U.S. he was welcomed with a 21-gun salute on the south lawn of the White House followed by a state banquet. In Britain he was greeted by the Queen, and rode with her in a golden carriage to Buckingham Palace.

Though both receptions were equally courteous on the surface, a deeper look reveals real differences in the nature of the Sino-U.S. and the Sino-UK relations.

China and Britain are busy boasting of a "Golden Era" of bilateral ties, and yet ties between Washington and Beijing appear as complicated as ever these days. It is true that, broadly speaking, China and the U.S. have become indispensable partners on various international issues such as climate change, nuclear security, and global public health. But at the same time, the two countries repeatedly struggle to resolve differences and reach consensus.

Consider the results of the two visits. China and Britain published a joint declaration while China and the U.S. issued separate fact sheets. Still, in looking back at the past three years, the path to the Sino-UK "Golden Era" hasn't been without twists and turns. When Prime Minister David Cameron met with the Dalai Lama in May 2012, the two countries' relations hit a new wall. It took a full year, only after Cameron reiterated that Britain recognizes Tibet as part of China and that it does not support "Tibetan independence," for the frozen bilateral relationship to begin to thaw again. In March this year, pushed by Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, the UK was the first Western country to join the Asia Infrastructure Development Bank set up by China. From that moment on, Sino-UK ties have quickly drawn closer.

In a joint article published by The Guardian on Sept. 19, George Osborne and Jim O'Neill, the UK commercial secretary to the Treasury, stated that "There are those who say we should fear China's rise — that we should somehow guard ourselves against it. But we reject such thinking, which would simply leave the UK slipping behind. Instead, we should embrace it. We want a golden relationship with China that will help foster a golden decade for this country. It is an opportunity that the UK can't afford to miss. Simply put, we want to make the UK China's best partner in the West."

With the so-called "special relationship" between the U.S. and UK, Washington did not publicly comment, but American officials have privately criticized Britain as caring only for its own business interests. And yet in the eyes of other European countries, the British approach was not only understandable, but something of a model. On Oct. 26, the German and French ambassadors to China published a joint letter in the Chinese press calling the two countries China's core partners ahead of visits to China by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande.

Another special relationship

Ultimately the reason why Sino-UK relations are different from Sino-U.S. ones is because the two states' position in the international order differs. After the Suez crisis in 1956, the second Middle East war, Britain finally realized that it was no longer a world power, and thus switched its diplomatic policy to focus on markets. The first is the special UK-U.S. relation, followed by relations with the other EU countries, the Commonwealth, and finally with other regions.

Britain has become the modern master of diplomatic pragmatism. In other words, it doesn't hold on much to principle, except where it concerns the balance of power with the European continent.

Still, the Chinese should be aware that all could change just as quickly: Once China's economy loses momentum, Europe's economic recovery speeds up, and the American economy continues to move forward — and as an election nears — the Sino-UK relationship could cool, since it is not built on a shared sense of identification and values. In any case, seizing the golden five years ahead serves the Conservative government's purpose. The headache that will follow can be left to the next government anyway.

The complexity of Sino-U.S. is well-known, and lies mainly at the strategic level. The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) is the backbone of America's "pivot" to Asia, embodying America's commitment to its allies in the region, which raises the stakes in any dispute between China and its neighbors. Because of the alliance, the U.S., which doesn't have any land claims of its own in the South China Sea and East China Sea, is obliged to guarantee its promise to stand by its allies, so as not to lose credibility or show weakness.

The clout of America in one region will always be under scrutiny by its allies in other regions. Were the U.S. to demonstrate weakness in the Asia-Pacific region, its allies in Europe would worry about the credibility of NATO's Article 5, and vice-versa.

Even if the Anglo-American relationship doesn't appear to be as "special" as in the past, it won't implode just because of their different attitudes towards China at this time. Though some have criticized Britain for being too tightly aligned with America's war machine in Iraq, the whole of Britain's security interests abroad, such as the fight against terrorism and the Ukrainian issue, are consistent with those of the United States.

Britain's pragmatism is rooted in a recognition of the relativity of its strength, and the fact that, unlike America, it won't be able to publicly challenge or even push back against its Chinese interests. Britain and America differ in certain affairs not because of any disagreement of the two countries over basic values or even interests but, mainly, because of differing priorities.

China must remember that United States is a world power, which means that Sino-U.S. relations largely depends on bilateral and multilateral cooperation in both regional and global affairs. It may seem like a paradox, but the more chaotic and complex the world becomes, the more room the two countries will have to work together in order to avoid friction in their bilateral relations.

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