After the election: What should we Chinese expect from UK foreign policy? | 作者: Zhang Bei | 时间: 2015-05-13 | 责编: 李敏捷
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The outcome of the 2015 UK general election is not quite what many political commentators and polling companies anticipated: A Conservative-Labour tie and another coalition government had seemed inevitable before the election. However, after Labour was annihilated in Scotland and failed to make up its losses in swing constituencies, the outcome came as a sweet surprise for the Conservative Party. They managed to accrue 331 seats, securing a majority government in the coming five years.


The foreign policy of the last Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government received equal measures of praise and criticism. A foreign policy with a clear commercial focus born in an age of economic austerity contributed to the UK economic recovery, but was often labeled as a sign of the UK’s shrinking world role. Cameron’s EU policy, an expression of age-old British euroscepticism, greatly increased the danger of a Brexit. In this context, the foreign policy of the new government especially merits attention.


Coping with the European question is the most urgent issue. The Europe question, in former UK Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s words, remains “something we know, in our bones, we cannot do,” and continues to bother a certain section of British public opinion. Under the last coalition government, the relatively dormant eurosceptic mood gained new life.


Prime Minister David Cameron in 2013 called for a renegotiation of the terms of the UK’s EU membership and promised to organize a referendum by the end of 2017 if the Conservatives got an outright majority in the general election. That majority now secure, the clock is ticking. In the coming two years, Cameron will devote a lot of attention to this issue and the task will not be easy.


The so-called “renegotiation” may prove extremely difficult in practice. For the time being, the Conservatives are ambivalent about their aims and tactics in the renegotiation. What they demanded is repatriation of competences from the EU, but they were not specific about which particular competences and in what way they should be repatriated. The half-hearted stance of the UK towards the EU has strained its relations with EU institutions and member states, making it difficult to rally potential reformist allies within the EU.


The consequences of a Brexit are almost unimaginable. After 40-odd years inside the club, the UK is entwined with the European project in every possible way. To manage renegotiation in such a way as to not only keep euroscepticism on a leash but also to see the UK’s legitimate demands for EU reform addressed while still avoiding a Brexit will test the wisdom and capability of the Conservative leadership.


An introverted UK will be the new normal. The last coalition demonstrated clear introversion. After the Arab Spring, the UK joined in the 2011 multi-state bombing of Libya, but placed a lot of emphasis on limiting its involvement. In 2013, the UK parliament rejected the use of force in Syria. During the Ukraine crisis, Germany and France formed the core of EU security while the UK was conspicuously missing from the negotiating table. This lack of interest in world affairs was rightly reflected in the election campaign where no party seemed to care about what was happening outside the UK.


Under the new government, introversion will be sustained a while. The Conservative Party will deliver on its pledges to prioritize fiscal consolidation and government spending cuts. Defense spending may decline below 2 percent of gross domestic product. Most importantly, Great Britain and its people still have not stepped out from the dark shadows of their Iraq and Afghanistan debacles. According to research by YouGov pollsters, those who think the armed forces best serve the national interest overseas has fallen from a peak of 53 percent in 2011 to 38 percent in 2014. In an age of economic austerity and public hesitation towards overseas endeavors, for the next few years we will still see an inward-looking UK.


Pragmatic diplomacy with a clear commercial focus will continue. Under the last government, commercial diplomacy was truly at the heart of Britain’s foreign policy. The UK strengthened ties with emerging countries and renewed traditional partnerships with Japan, Southeast Asia and the Gulf states. Although this commercial approach met with cynicism and scorn, it has proven very effective in promoting UK business interests overseas and attracting foreign investment and thus contributed to the UK economic recovery.


The Conservative Party manifesto, released before the election, boasts that its foreign policy boosted economic prosperity and promised a fresh push in this direction. As the new Conservative government still regards improving UK economic strength as a major goal, we can expect a foreign policy that plays down value differences and focuses on commercial interests.


In this context, there is reason to believe that under the new government China-UK relations will maintain their positive trajectory. China-UK economic and trade relations have made huge strides in recent years. The UK announced it would become a prospective founding member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in March, showing flexibility and pragmatism towards new institutions and new developments in emerging countries.


As an important part of the UK’s economic rebalancing, strengthening economic and trade ties with China and maintaining healthy and stable development of China-UK relations are commonly acknowledged objectives in UK foreign policy circles.



The author is an assistant research fellow with the China Institute of International Studies