In February 2016, when Boris Johnson was still mayor of London, he wrote in The Telegraph newspaper that if the UK voted to leave the European Union, its government would be embroiled “for several years in a fiddly process of negotiating new arrangements” on trade and business with other countries. As prime minister, Johnson has just made that process much harder for himself, by picking a very public fight with China, one his country’s largest economic partners.
Relations between Europe and China have soured over the last few years. Beijing and Brussels regularly butt heads over Hong Kong, Taiwan, and human rights violations in Xinjiang. Last year, the European Commission called Beijing a “systemic rival” in a strategic outlook paper (pdf, p. 1). With Covid-19, things have only gotten worse.
The UK mostly stayed out of the fray, having declared in 2015 a “new golden era” in relations with China. But with Johnson at its head, Downing Street has become more aggressive and vocal lately on at least two issues: Hong Kong and the Chinese technology giant Huawei. As Johnson attempts to restructure the Sino-British relationship in the wake of Brexit, it’s not clear what leverage he has, or who could step into the void if China chose to reduce the scale of its investments in the UK.