At the beginning of February the British prime minister, Theresa May, visited China, taking along her International Trade Minister and about fifty business leaders, which was a none-too-subtle signal that her trip involved rather more than her intention to “intensify the ‘Golden Era’ in UK-China relations.”
According to the official Chinese news agency, Xinhua, the so-called ‘Golden Era’ was agreed when President Xi visited the UK in 2015, but Xinhua made the point that relations soured when May delayed approval of Chinese construction of a nuclear power plant in Britain, citing “security concerns.” It observed that “such unfounded stroke of ‘China-phobia’ is detrimental not only to China-Britain relations, but to the British leader's much trumpeted image of a ‘Global Britain’.”
Having made the disastrous decision to leave the European Union, Britain is searching frantically for trade partners around the world, but if it is thought in London that there will be open-armed global welcome on that score, its legislators are showing themselves to be even duller than usual. The Economist observed that “to call Britain’s referendum on Brexit a great act of democracy is both to describe it and to debase the word ‘democracy’. Campaigners traded not hard facts last June, but insults to the electorate’s intelligence.” And the hard-headed journal made it clear that there would be no easy way to maintain the UK’s current levels of global trade. In other words, Britain is in a dire economic pickle.
In 2016 the UK exported goods and services worth 235.8 billion pounds to the European Union and 284.1 billion’s worth to the rest of the world. And coming closer to Mrs May’s reason for going cap-in-hand to China, in that year Britain exported 3.1 percent of its goods and services to China, while 43 percent went to EU countries. It is obvious that May and her ramshackle government are desperate to get China and lots of other nations to give the UK favourable terms in mutual trade once it leaves the European Union, and you would think that in order to do that they would try to avoid upsetting the countries concerned.
Things seemed to be going quite well with China, and Xinhua noted approvingly that there had been a successful visit to London by a flotilla of Chinese PLA Navy ships. It reported that “the guided-missile frigates Huanggang and Yangzhou, and the supply ship Gaoyouhu” arrived in October 2017 “for a five-day friendly visit to Britain.” And indeed it was a successful visit. Most navies get on well with each other, and this was no exception.
The China Daily was pleased to note that “Rear Admiral Alex Burton, Commander United Kingdom Maritime Forces, said such bilateral military exchanges reflect the lengthy, strong and close relationship between the nations” and quoted approvingly his statement that “We have both confronted common challenges: counter-piracy, natural disasters and peacekeeping. The need to work in partnership, as we have done for so many years, to find common solutions to these challenges, is way more important today.” All was sweetness and light, and what with May’s trade delegation pouring on more honey it seemed that China might be prepared to make things a little easier for Britain in its anxious quest for trade.
So it is difficult to understand why on earth Britain then went out of its way to annoy China. Mrs May and her fragmented gang of incompetent ministers have begun to interfere in the South China Sea, where US nuclear-capable warships regularly voyage provocatively close to islets maintained by China. It would have been sensible for the UK to stay away from that sort of confrontational absurdity, but common sense is sadly lacking in Britain’s government.
The UK’s defence minister, a peculiar person called Gavin Williamson, was selected by Mrs May last November when his predecessor had to resign after admitting involvement in sexual harassment. As the Financial Times reported, Williamson is somewhat erratic, and “suspicions about Mr Williamson’s ambitions resurfaced last month when the married father of two told the Daily Mail about an affair he had with a colleague in 2004. On the same day, he warned in a separate interview with the Daily Telegraph that Russia was developing plans to kill ‘thousands and thousands and thousands’ of UK citizens in a cyber attack.” It is barely credible that such a fool can be a British government minister, but he seems to speak for Britain, and that’s where the China Sea comes in.
The Royal Navy (RN) — the navy of Great Britain — is, alas, a mere shadow of its former self. When I served in the British Army in the Far East very many years ago, the RN had an aircraft carrier, a cruiser, a destroyer squadron and a submarine squadron, both of about half a dozen vessels, and twenty or so other ships in the region. It was a strong and competent force. Now it has not a single ship in the Far East, and as noted by Reuters, “the Royal Navy is a shadow of its former self. Government budgeteers have repeatedly, and excessively, cut the numbers of its ships, planes and manpower. It can barely patrol the United Kingdom’s own waters, much less project British influence abroad. Though London officials now vow to reverse the decline, it might be too late. With morale plummeting, and its few remaining ships frequently malfunctioning at sea, the Royal Navy’s suffering might be terminal.”
But Britain does send a ship to the East from time to time. At the moment the RN’s frigate HMS Sutherland is in the region, and when it was in Australia, Mr Williamson arrived there and announced on 13 February that the ship “will be sailing through the South China Sea and making it clear our Navy has a right to do that.”
Of course it has the right to do that. There is no ship in the world — even US nuclear-armed US aircraft carriers and cruisers that regularly sail all over the South China Sea — that is denied the right to do that.
There has never been an incident of China interfering with a commercial vessel in these sea-lanes, and in spite of deliberate baiting by United States Navy ships that seek to provoke China to take action against them, China has not yet retaliated against such aggravation. But Mr Williamson declared that “World dynamics are shifting so greatly. The US can only concentrate on so many things at once. The US is looking for other countries to do more. This is a great opportunity for the UK and Australia to do more, to exercise leadership... It’s very important that we demonstrate that these are seas anyone can pass through and we’ll be making sure that the Royal Navy will protect those rights for international shipping.”
It’s not often that one hears China’s leaders roar with laughter, but one wonders what President Xi’s reaction was when he heard that absurd and totally fatuous statement.
Into the South China Sea ploughs the tiny frigate HMS Sutherland, doing absolutely nothing except annoying China. And out of the window go Britain’s aspirations for a favourable approach by China to bilateral trade negotiations.
The UK has got a commercial death wish.