8th July 2024 – (Beijing) The Labour Party’s landslide victory in the recent UK general election marks a pivotal moment in British politics, with implications that extend far beyond domestic affairs. As Keir Starmer prepares to take the helm as Prime Minister, one of the most pressing challenges his government faces is charting a new course for U.K.-China relations. This task is fraught with complexities, requiring a delicate balance between economic pragmatism and strategic caution.

The Conservative era saw a dramatic shift in the U.K.’s stance towards China, from David Cameron’s optimistic proclamation of a “golden era” to more recent characterisations of Beijing as an “epoch-defining” security challenge. This evolving perspective reflects broader global concerns about China’s assertiveness on the world stage, its human rights record, and its growing economic and technological influence.

The new Labour government inherits a geopolitical landscape significantly more complex than that faced by its predecessors. The ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, tensions in the Taiwan Strait, and concerns over human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang have all contributed to a deterioration in Western-Chinese relations. Moreover, the U.K.’s post-Brexit reality necessitates a recalibration of its global partnerships, with China representing both an opportunity and a challenge.

Keir Starmer and his team have pledged to conduct a “full audit” of U.K.-China relations within their first 100 days in office. This review will likely serve as the foundation for Labour’s approach to Beijing, potentially offering a more coherent strategy than the sometimes inconsistent policies of recent Conservative governments.

Labour’s foreign policy stance, characterised by Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy as “progressive realism”, suggests a nuanced approach to China. The party’s mantra of “compete, cooperate, and challenge” indicates a recognition of the multifaceted nature of UK-China relations.

On the economic front, there are compelling reasons for the UK to seek improved ties with China. As the world’s second-largest economy and a significant global market, China offers substantial opportunities for British businesses. From luxury goods and automobiles to financial services and higher education, UK exports find eager consumers in the Chinese market. Moreover, Chinese investment in the UK, particularly in sectors such as technology and infrastructure, has been a valuable source of capital and job creation.

However, Labour must balance these economic considerations with strategic caution. Security concerns, particularly in areas such as telecommunications infrastructure and sensitive technologies, will continue to shape policy decisions. The forced sale of the Nexperia chip plant on national security grounds serves as a recent example of the UK’s willingness to prioritise strategic interests over economic gains. Rights and Democratic Values

Labour’s traditional emphasis on human rights and democratic values adds another layer of complexity to its China policy. Issues such as the situation in Hong Kong, treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and broader concerns about civil liberties in China are likely to remain points of contention. Starmer’s background as a human rights lawyer suggests that these issues will not be easily sidelined in pursuit of economic cooperation.

The challenge for Labour will be to maintain a principled stance on human rights while engaging constructively with China on areas of mutual interest. This may require a more nuanced approach than the sometimes confrontational rhetoric employed by recent Conservative governments.

Labour’s China policy will not be formulated in isolation but will be influenced by the U.K.’s broader network of alliances and partnerships. The “special relationship” with the United States, membership in NATO, and the desire to rebuild closer ties with the European Union post-Brexit will all shape the U.K.’s approach to China.

The potential for divergence in U.S.-U.K. policy towards China, particularly if there is a change in US administration, adds another layer of complexity. Labour will need to navigate these alliances carefully, balancing solidarity with Western partners against the pursuit of a distinct British approach to China.

Several key policy areas are expected to shape Labour’s approach to China. In trade and investment, while there is a need to safeguard strategic industries, Labour may also aim to bolster trade in less sensitive sectors and draw Chinese investment in areas that align with UK economic priorities, such as green technology and infrastructure. In the realm of technology and innovation, striking a balance between the advantages of technological cooperation and concerns over intellectual property protection and national security is essential. Labour could pursue the establishment of more defined guidelines for technology transfers and collaborative research efforts.

Addressing climate change, a pressing global issue that necessitates international collaboration, presents an opportunity for constructive dialogue with China. Labour might focus on partnerships centred around green technologies and sustainable development. Additionally, enhancing people-to-people connections through educational and cultural exchanges could pave the way for better mutual understanding and increase the UK’s soft power influence. On matters of regional security, Labour will need to clearly articulate its position on sensitive issues like the South China Sea disputes and cross-strait relations, aiming to support international law while avoiding unnecessary confrontations.

Looking forward, Labour’s China policy is expected to be shaped by several guiding principles. The party might adopt an issue-by-issue engagement strategy, cooperating where interests align and standing firm on contentious issues. Emphasizing multilateral coordination, Labour would likely work closely with allies, particularly in Europe and the Indo-Pacific, to form coordinated stances on China-related concerns. Enhancing economic resilience by diversifying trade relationships and supply chains will also be crucial to reduce over-reliance on China while still maintaining beneficial economic connections. Moreover, Labour is expected to engage in values-based diplomacy, upholding democratic principles and human rights while fostering constructive dialogue with China on shared interests. Finally, enhancing strategic autonomy by developing the UK’s capabilities in critical technologies and industries will be pivotal to reducing vulnerabilities and improving negotiating leverage.

As Keir Starmer’s Labour government takes office, its approach to China will be a defining aspect of its foreign policy. The challenge lies in crafting a strategy that protects British interests and values while recognising the inevitability and importance of engaging with China on global issues.