In the wake of the 2016 Brexit referendum, Theresa May is seeking new deals for an unmoored Britain. Without the EU's backing, the UK prime minister's negotiating position is diminished, Frank Sieren writes.
It must be hard to be in Theresa May's shoes these days. There's little breakthrough in sight in Brexit negotiations with the European Union, and, though new numbers have since emerged, studies into the economic damage that could occur once Brexit is complete have further fueled the rows at home. Britain needs to boost ties with its non-EU partners. Ahead of the 2016 referendum, Brexit's proponents argued that Britain would benefit from bilateral agreements once it left the European Union. May was hoping that this would turn out to be true when she became the first European leader to visit Donald Trump after he became the US president. Her recent first state visit to China was in the same vein.
There was pressure at home for May to raise China's poor human rights record during her visit. In an open letter, Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, urged her to discuss the former colony, which has faced threats to basic freedoms, human rights and its autonomy since the United Kingdom handed control over to China's government.
May voiced mild criticism behind closed doors, but she was praised by state media for sidestepping rights discussions
The prime minister's agenda focused more on investment possibilities and securing a free trade agreement ahead of Brexit.
"There are huge trade opportunities in China that we want to help British businesses take advantage of," May said.
May's 'golden era'?
The business delegation was the largest that Britain's government had ever taken overseas.
There was renewed talk of a "golden era" in Sino-British relations at a meeting that May held with her Chinese counterpart, Li Keqiang, and President Xi Jinping (left in photo) — much as had been discussed when Xi visited the UK in 2015 for negotiations with her predecessor, David Cameron. London was draped in red to welcome Xi, and plenty of deals were made. There were advantages for both sides: China would invest in Britain, which in turn would put in a good word for its new partner in Brussels.
Britain can no longer put in a good word for Beijing. And yet it needs Chinese investments more than ever. China has put almost €17 million into its UK endeavors in the past five years.
China's government would have preferred for Britain to remain in the EU, and officials made this clear ahead of the Brexit referendum. After voters made their decision, Finance Minister Lou Jiwei warned that the result would "cast a shadow over the global economy."
Lou had domestic firms in mind. China Telecom and China Unicom, the Bank of China, Sinopec, and many companies have their European offices in London — it used to be an ideal location for access to the EU market. Post-Brexit Britain is less interesting to China and thus less influential on the world stage.
Britain's room for maneuvering has decreased. Deals amounting to over €10 billion ($12 billion) were signed during May's visit — including one in which Chinese investors pledged over a billion euros in funding commitments to two British venture capital firms (Future Planet Capital and Eight Great Technologies) that are specialized in biotech and medicine.
China can afford to cherry-pick now. And the result is that May's success was muted by comparison to Xi's visit in 2015, when deals worth upward of €56 billion were signed.
On the fence
In the future, China's One Belt One Road Initiative could end up being a driving force of Britain's economy — or at least a stabilizing factor. May did not sign a memorandum of understanding giving her official endorsement to the $900 billion (€735 billion) infrastructure project. She would have been the first leader of a big industrial nation to do so. French President Emmanuel Macron did not do so either during his trip to China in January. It would make little sense for him to undermine an EU line that has yet to emerge.
May was accused by the British media and also by the Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong of wasting her time drinking tea and not baring her teeth.
As her trip to China made clear, securing partners for her post-Brexit Britain is a difficult balancing act that May may not necessarily manage.