THE BLOG

Boris's Brexit Gamble With China

17/06/2016 15:47 | Updated 20 June 2016

It wasn't long living in Beijing before learning what the Chinese thought of the Brits. I was teaching English, a not uncommon rite of passage for many Europeans, to an elite group of teenage students. Whilst only three quarters could place Britain on a map, nearly all had been taught their country's chequered past with its old foe.

Opium wars. Naval blockages. The bai nian guo chi (100 years of shame). The colonial legacy of Britain's interventions had been brandished on the impressionable minds of China's generation Z.

The Britain of today, in their eyes, was a funny little island of Burberry and Harry Potter, the Queen and Manchester United - all emblematic of our country's soft power in Asia. While its navies and generals had faded into history, its real power was characterised by its influence on the world stage, particularly Europe.

It is curious, therefore, that London's former Mayor Boris Johnson has chosen China as the country to save a lonely Britain should, as he believes, we leave the EU.

"Locked in the EU", Boris writes, "we cannot do free-trade deals with some of the fastest growing economies [including] China."

The Boris doctrine has it that free from the shackles of the Europe, his Britain would usher in a spectacular new era of trade with our Far East cousins.

There's a partial truth in his canon. Trade between the UK and China is booming. In part thanks to repeated overtures by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor to a phalanx of billionaires and state owned enterprises looking to invest their gains here.

In the past 5 years Britain has become the top European destination for Chinese foreign direct investment. Some $16.6bn (£11.7bn) has flowed into businesses from Leeds to London in that time. Barclays. Thames Water. The controversial Hinkley Point nuclear power plant. Heathrow and Manchester Airports. Even Weetabix has been a benefactor of its breakneck economic development.

Consider also the number of Chinese companies with headquarters in London. Electronics giant Huawei and both Chinese telecoms majors employ thousands here. The Bank of China has not one but two branches in central London. SinoChem, a Chinese energy giant, has an office just off the Embankment.

We only have to gain from these solid foundations, Boris would argue. Not quite.

There has been only one intervention from China in a British policy debate in recent memory and that was over Brexit. During his most recent visit to the UK Chinese President Xi Jin Ping's urged for a "united EU" with Britain at its heart. A rare intercession from a regime which asks other governments not to comment on its own affairs, as it returns the favour.

As Xi began, others have followed. The real estate billionaire and founder of Dalian Wanda group, Wang Jianlin, went on record to comment Brexit was "not a smart choice for the UK". His reasons were simple. The UK leaves the EU, Chinese companies leave the UK. Or would at least consider moving their headquarters abroad.

So it leaves the Boris doctrine with a simple question. Why would China, its companies, and its not inconsiderable number of billionaires want a Britain inside the EU?

The arguments are multifaceted but essentially boil down to a simple maxim. China sees its "golden era" relationship with the UK as a lynchpin for influence in Europe.

The Communist Party does not regularly dispatch its head to a foreign country one twentieth its population and less than one third its GDP out of politeness. China has assiduously and patiently built not only an economic relationship with the UK but one which ties our two countries closer together.

This, it could be argued, has allowed the Middle Kingdom greater influence within the EU. The UK is by no means China's proxy, but it might be considered one of its economic cheerleaders within the bloc.

An EU with active participation from the UK means a stronger Europe. And a stronger Europe, in Beijing's view, acts as a ballast against what it perceives as growing US and North American interference in Asian affairs - a sphere China would much rather handle without scrutiny or intervention.

The simple fact is that the Boris doctrine is flawed. China does not want Britain to leave the EU, for reasons both good and bad.

Whether an isolated Britain could negotiate separate trade deals with the world's second largest economy remains questionable. One thing is certain, however. There would be much less zeal from Beijing to do so without the broader sphere of influence Britain brings within Europe.

After all, why buy a restricted view ticket when you can sit with the VIPs centre stage?

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