Kerry Brown has earned a reputation as one of the most prolific and yet reasonable commentators on China. In The Future of UK-China Relations, he turns his eye on his home country.
In a refreshing departure from most “China books”, written from a position of claimed omniscience, Brown starts from purported ignorance, first his own
I have to admit that, paradoxically, despite being British I have a clearer and better idea of what the Chinese think of us, than what my native country thinks of China.
… and then that of his subjects:
The majority of British people would likely be hard pressed to name the current president of the People’s Republic, Xi Jinping.
At just over 100 pages of actual text, this brief work is more of an extended essay than an attempt to be definitive. Brown poses some questions—notably, exactly what does Britain actually think about China?—proposes some possible answers, but mostly leaves open the question implied by the title.
Brown manages to be both erudite and analytical on the one hand, and humble and modest on the other. His proscriptions—that Britain as a whole and Britons as individuals should probably know and reflect more about the country is destined to play an increasingly important role in their lives—therefore come across as thoughtful rather than lecturing.
Although he plays up the positive, Brown is sanguine about what Britain can hope to achieve. The country’s diminished horizons are evident when he suggests that one favorable outcome would be to “act much like a ‘Singapore of Europe’”, a former colony, a city-state with a population less than 6 million.
Although Britain’s situation is some ways unique, in several others, it is not: readers and policy-makers in other countries from Australia to India face similar questions, opportunities and dilemmas.
The Future of UK-China Relations however assumes something about the future of UK-Europe relations that has turned out to be less than entirely certain: Brexit was, it appears, the catalyst for publication and it figures prominently throughout the book. But Brexit didn’t happen, at least not on schedule.
Brown is of course correct when he asserts that Brexit is a, perhaps the, fundamental factor in Britain’s future relations with China, both in terms of what Britain can do on its own and what it will have to do on its own. And indeed, many if not most of the issues Brown raises and discusses exist to some extent independent of the Brexit’s exact status. Nevertheless, without knowing what form Brexit will take, when it will happen, or whether it will ultimately happen at all, it is impossible for Britain and the British people to know which paths will be open to them. The supposed lack of national focus on China might in fact be an entirely rational prioritization of mental energy.
Recent events have intruded into the narrative in another way. Britain’s defense minister was sacked just this week over disagreementsor more accurately, over leaks about disagreements regarding Chinese telecoms giant Huawei’s recent attempts to develop 5G networks in Britain. This is not merely a UK-China matter, for the USA has threatened to make security cooperation contingent upon its allies keeping Chinese companies out of strategic infrastructure. So even if, as Brown says, “at some point, the UK will be able to pursue a free trade agreement with China”, this freedom may be in important respects remain dependent on what America thinks about it.
It is interesting to consider why people know or focus on certain things and not others. An economist, taking into account the allocation of scarce resources, here intellectual, might come up with a different answer than a political scientist.
Brown has in this clear, succinct bookonly slightly marred by a typo or two that should have been caught by someone; the late Sir David Tang’s surname is mispelled as Tsang, an entirely different surname lowered the information acquisition costs as much as may be humanly possible, but as long as Brexit and US foreign policy remain in flux, the proverbial man or woman on the Clapham omnibus might be forgiven for leaving China to some extent on the back burner until these other developments play out.
Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.
Notes [ + ]
|1.||↩||or more accurately, over leaks about disagreements|
|2.||↩||only slightly marred by a typo or two that should have been caught by someone; the late Sir David Tang’s surname is mispelled as Tsang, an entirely different surname|