US President Donald Trump’s warm overtures to Britain’s new Prime Minister have been widely covered since Boris Johnson took power on Wednesday.
But with the new UK leader under pressure to deliver Brexit and an economic revival, it might be Chinese President Xi Jinping who can expect to see a warmer welcome in London.
In an interview with Johnson by Hong Kong Chinese television network Phoenix Television, broadcast for the first time Tuesday, the new UK leader hints that he might be more amicable to China.
In the interview, which took place when he was the UK’s foreign secretary in January 2018, Johnson effusively praises China and its leader.
“We’re interested in what President Xi is doing and don’t forget that the UK was the first country to sign up to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, so we are very pro-China,” he said, referencing the Beijing-based bank.
Johnson said that he was “very enthusiastic” about Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) investment project and celebrated Chinese investment in the United Kingdom.
The then-foreign secretary even said his daughter was learning Mandarin in China. “Learning Chinese is very important, definitely,” he said.
Relations between the West and Beijing have shifted considerably in recent months in light of the US-China trade war and it remains unclear whether Johnson’s position has also changed.
The comments though give valuable insight into the mind of the UK’s new leader at a time when Chinese investment and trade has never been more important to the UK, with Johnson promising to leave the European Union by October 31 at the latest.
Meanwhile it will be up to the new PM to decide if he’ll follow US requests to ban Chinese technology giant Huawei from participating in the construction of the country’s 5G infrastructure.
The Trump administration has identified Huawei — the world’s largest provider of telecommunications equipment — as a spying risk to Western infrastructure networks and has warned European countries that using Huawei technology could hurt their relationship with the US.
Golden era 2.0?
More than half of the UK’s trade currently comes from Europe, but with its future trade with the European Union uncertain after Brexit, London is looking for new trading opportunities.
In an editorial, the day after Boris’s victory was announced, Chinese state-run newspaper, the China Daily, said that the new UK leader faced a delicate balance between Beijing and Washington.
“Given that the United States has decided to lock horns with China on trade, tech and other issues, it is likely to make it a condition of any deal with the UK that it is precluded from having a free trade agreement with China,” the editorial said.
“And a FTA with China is something the UK has also pinned its hopes on post-Brexit.”
The UK was the first major Western country to sign up to China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which was created as a competitor to the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.
Johnson and his fellow advocates to leave the EU have long touted new trade deals with Beijing and Washington as a way to help build a post-Brexit economy.
But the US has indicated that London may have to pick between the two, in a trade document which outlined Washington’s priorities in March. It warned of “appropriate action” if the country negotiates a trade deal with a “non-market country,” strongly indicating China.
Beijing has previously indicated it would be open to greater trade and investment ties with the UK.
The new UK leader’s comments on Xi’s Belt and Road plan could indicate a willingness to join the Chinese leader’s massive international infrastructure spending project. So far, Italy is the only G7 nation to have signed up, which aims to build massive trade corridors from China to Europe, Africa and the rest of Asia.
Following Johnson’s ascent to the top of British politics, Jin Xu, a former minister-counsellor of Commerce at the Chinese Embassy in the UK, wrote in state-run tabloid Global Times that the two countries could be on the brink of a “China-UK golden era 2.0.”
“Compared with his predecessors, he is a tough diplomat, but he has never done anything to hurt relations with Beijing. In addition, as a realistic politician, any policy adjustment is possible on his watch,” the former official said.
Difficult choices loom
Many people in China were first introduced to Johnson during his time as London mayor.
In 2008, Johnson appeared at the closing ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics to symbolically collect the Olympic flag ahead of the 2012 London Games.
His appearance and sloppy behavior almost immediately sparked fury on Chinese social media, which criticized Johnson for having his jacket unbuttoned, putting his hands in his pockets and carrying the flag with one hand.
In his interview in January 2018, Johnson appeared enthusiastic to make up lost ground with China over the past decade.
“We’re very lucky because we have coming to the UK not only lots of goods manufactured in China, we have 155,000 Chinese students in the country, which is wonderful for us and they make a massive contribution to Britain,” he said.
In more recent comments in July, Johnson said the mass protests in Hong Kong had his “support” and said he’d “happily speak up for them.”
Remarks along these lines into the future are unlikely to be well received in Beijing. When Johnson’s opponent for the Conservative Party leadership, former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, made similar comments in early July, China’s Foreign Ministry accused him of being “immersed in the faded glory of colonialism” and told the UK to mind its own business.