Has the United States lost its best friend to its biggest rival?

October 26, 2015
Chinese President Xi Jinping with the Duchess of Cambridge and Queen Elizabeth II at a state banquet at Buckingham Palace, London, during the first day of his state visit to Britain

Chinese President Xi Jinping with the Duchess of Cambridge and Queen Elizabeth II at a state banquet at Buckingham Palace, London, during the first day of his state visit to Britain, October 20, 2015. REUTERS/Dominic Lipinski/Pool

As Xi Jinping, president of China, toured Britain and promised large investments, the Chinese word “kowtow” was much heard. The Oxford dictionary defines it as a prostration in which one kneels “in worship or submission” — and contemporaneously, as acting “in an excessively subservient manner.”

Both bear on the presidential state visit.

Historically, the person who received the deepest kowtow was the Chinese emperor himself; the person showing respect knelt three times, each time touching his head on the ground three times — nine times in all. The first British ambassadors, at the end of the 18th century, wouldn’t do that, so full embassy was denied: Emperor Quianlong sent a letter to George III, which made clear his view of foreigners as “barbarians” inevitably inferior to China.

An embassy was not admitted until the British and French beat China into submission in the First (1839-42) and Second (1856-60) Opium Wars. The victors both received trading concessions, while Hong Kong was ceded to the British. For decades after that, the UK was the most powerful nation on earth, visiting on China — whose rulers were hugely sensitive to status — great humiliation.

Now, humiliation is reversed.

More than two centuries after the first ambassador refused to prostrate himself before the Son of Heaven, “kowtow” is used in the first meaning. Xi is being given the highest honors the British state can bestow. Queen Elizabeth II gave him a banquet and a suite in Buckingham Palace (last occupied by her grandson William and his wife on their wedding night); he addressed parliament; he was attended constantly by either the queen, or by Prime Minister David Cameron.

This kind attention is because China may invest up to $46 billion in various projects, including up to $12 billion in a new nuclear power station (together with France). China will use the City of London for international banking and currency and other trading; and will favor Britain when importing services.

In this newfound amity, there has been no public mention from the British side of human or civil rights. No lectures on the imprisonment of dissidents, nor the suppression of already limited press freedoms, nor even of the vast corruption that still plagues the country, in spite of Xi’s campaign against it. This silence — it’s widely said — is Britain’s shame.

Steve Hilton, once Cameron’s closest advisor said that the behavior of his former boss “is one of the worst national humiliations we’ve seen since we went cap-in-hand to the IMF in the 1970s” (in 1976, the International Monetary Fund loaned a near-bankrupt UK $4 billion).

The dissident artist Ai Weiwei, now in London, said the Chinese — who, he believes, are becoming more aware of their rights — would be “deeply disappointed” when they saw Cameron “put human rights aside.”

These polemics are likely to fade back into debates among specialists and activists: but there is a yet larger issue, now coming to the fore.

Britain has seen itself as the United States’ best friend on the international scene for more than a century. I had thought that we British overdid its importance — till I heard the president of the United States tell an audience in the House of Commons in May 2013 that it was special, very special, “because of the values and beliefs that have united our people through the ages”.

That doesn’t seem to have stood the test of time. This past year has been special only for the  disquiet that’s crept into the relationship, as successive high U.S. officials deplored cuts to the UK’s defense capacity. Then, in March, the disquiet became acrimony, as the UK headed the list of Western states to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment bank, with only minimal warning to the United States. One senior official spoke of a “constant accommodation” of China by the Brits.

Now, the U.S. administration believes that, according to another unnamed source, “there was a major rethink at the highest levels of the UK government that (they) were going to fall over ourselves to send a signal that (they) want a good relationship with China. It’s a pretty un-British thing to do.” It is un-British: being British has meant being close to the United States — not, apparently insouciantly, hacking away at ties that have bound the two main Anglophone nations in favor of a new and sudden Asian passion.

It’s a very large gamble on the still-rising power; and implicitly, it’s a bet against the United States, which, while still by far the richest and most powerful state, is steadily declining relative to China. That major rethink was led by the chancellor, George Osborne, Cameron’s likely successor when he stands down before the next election in 2020: it seems to have included such considerations as the globally-perceived weakness of this and likely future U.S. presidents, the permanent jam in Washington politics and the turning inward of the U.S. establishment — especially on the right.

Further, a referendum sometime in the next two years on British membership in the European Union may prompt an exit from the Union — and the need for this middle-sized state to find new, big friends. Britain’s economy is growing at around 2.5 percent — among the leaders among developed economies — but latest figures show signs of slowing, and manufacturing remains weak. The East may not be (very) red any more, but it’s increasingly loaded with wealth.

A very large shift in the UK’s international posture may thus be on the cards: if confirmed, the consequences will be much larger than those for the country itself. It will underscore the United States’ weakening position; further alarm the other EU members, who would see a British exit — “Brexit” — as major damage; weaken the once-strong UK voice in the realm of human and civil rights, and at the same time bind it to a China whose growth, though still almost three times higher than that of the UK, is slowing and whose human rights record is still dire.

There’s a different possibility, not much heard among the criticism: that the UK could be a bridge, not just between  Europe and the United States, but between China and the United States — as Margaret Thatcher was between the Soviet Union of Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan. And there could be a possibility that the closer relationship may  — contrary to Ai Weiwei’s forecast disappointment — help China improve.

At the press conference he gave on Wednesday, Xi said “there is always room for improvement in the world. China is ready to increase co-operation with UK and other countries over human rights.”

Does that have real meaning? Or was it simply a way of fending off aggressive questions from British journalists, not something Xi faces in his own country.

It seems, prima facie, unlikely. But we have to hope there is meaning there, and that Britain has not sold the “values and beliefs” Obama lauded four years ago for a mess of money. That would be a bad deal.

27 comments

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It’s likely that the U.K.-China deal is more about putting the City of London financial firms in a position to do more Chinese business during the 21st Century. This is more of an issue for the City of London than for Wall Street, because the City of London is an international financial services hub with particular expertise in foreign exchange, while Wall Street is more focused on the U.S. It is telling that, there have been rumors of Britain’s HSBC Bank (formerly, the Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Co.) moving from London to its original home of Hong Kong, but now there are reports HSBC is more likely either to stay in London or move to the U.S. That would make sense if HSBC anticipates substantial growth in dollar transactions, which are a type of transaction that City of London financial firms specialize in and a type of transaction where opportunities could increase as a result of the new U.K.-China relationship. At the same time, banks that handle large volumes of dollar transactions may benefit from being located in the U.S., because being located in the U.S. embeds the bank in the Federal Reserve regulatory structure, which controls the flow of dollars through the international banking system.

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive

When a big customer comes to visit, everybody tries to put their best foot forward to make a good impression. In the USA President Xi was shown the Boeing factory. The Queen gave him a ride in her golden coach. I am sure he was impressed by everything he saw.

Posted by pbgd | Report as abusive

The focus of the article is misplaced. Rather than faulting the Brits for shifting their allegiance from the US to China, the real question is why do so many former allies of the US now look elsewhere for their strategic interests? The answer is simple: Obama. Over the last seven years, many traditional allies of the US, such as, Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Poland, Balkan states, have felt betrayed by Obama. Friends have become enemies, enemies friends. No longer is America viewed as strong ally that will support its allies. The real issue is:
who lost Britain? The answer: Obama.

Posted by blasto | Report as abusive

Just because we are allies with the UK doesn’t make them a puppet state. They have their own country to run. If making this move made the most fiscal sense then more power to them. Not like what they did makes them a vassal state of China.

Posted by BadChicken | Report as abusive

In the early days of WW2, my father used to say: ‘Winston Churchill will fight to the last drop of American blood’…
The Brits burned the White House and the Capitol building in 1814. They drew the lines in the sand in the middle-east, without thinking about tribal relationships – which is one of the major causes of the problems there today. They split Pakistan and India poorly when India gained their independence.
We saved their bread in WW1 and WW2…. Now they Kowtow to the Chinese. Go figure.

Posted by edgyinchina | Report as abusive

Obama’s amateur “asleep at the switch” foreign policy is alienating all of our old allies. He cares more about appearing on “The View” and inflaming racial tensions than he does about leading the most powerful country int he world.

What a disaster as a “president”

Posted by GetReel | Report as abusive

Cash is and always will be king. Chinese commies don’t need to fight with us – they’re simply buying the West one by one, with Europe already lining up.
So here we go again: “A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Communism.” Marx’s wildest dream comes true: welcome to your wonderful communist future folks!

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

There is nothing black and white. Each decision, especially those with high impact, must be analysed thoroughly, seeking if optimum compromise is achieved and if a vision is in place. Even then, the test of time is crucial…

Posted by AVBD | Report as abusive

Why on earth is someone on here bringing up the War of 1812?
If you think that is how the world works- then you have wasted a life.

Posted by OlMart | Report as abusive

I believe that Chinese investment can be good for Britain. What would Britain have to lose? Europe is lagging and the U.S. is tied up in financial crises, not to mention losing influence around the world.

Posted by GitmoreDolluhrs | Report as abusive

C.R.E.A.M.

Posted by GitmoreDolluhrs | Report as abusive

Global trade and related financial services such as insurance is part of what Britain has done for a living for centuries. The headline is perhaps too bipolar and alarmist clickbait, more nuance in the article. One of Britain’s “exports” is well educated and capable expats from the upper/middle classes for related roles, so obviously beneficial to the UK Tory party supporters. Their aspirations for grandeur are not satisfied by being small fish in an American pond.

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive

Business and politics have to be separate.In this modern well connected world any one should do business with any one as per their monitory strength.Say for example Ukraine is still buying oil from Russia and Russia is supplying the same.
India is buying nuclear power plants from Russia and planed from US.US has little to worry about XI’s visit to UK.After all US is the leader in the world moneywise and technologywise.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

When the USA gets rid of the current embarrassment of a president, things will hopefully approve with our allies. The US and UK must remain close partners and keep our eyes on the more likely partnership between China and Russia. Vladimir Putin would love nothing more than to elevate his country to its former “superpower” status, and a military/trade alliance with China could accomplish that goal.
Unfortunately, there are still monsters like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin in our world; we just don’t know who they are yet. But a dictator like that needs a strong host if he is to threaten our worlds…and Russia or China may be that host. Just imagine if Saddam Huessien had had the resources and military of a China or Russia…scary indeed.

Posted by PNees | Report as abusive

The British Govt has kowtowed to the PRC, at least in the area of human rights. Cameron & his govt have basically decided that trade is more important than human rights. Not only were human rights not even on the agenda during Xi Jinping’s state visit, the London police went out of their way to make sure Xi did not see any pro-Tibet or human rights protestors. Two British-Tibetans were arrested merely for waiving the Tibetan national flag near Xi’s motorcade. And even a Chinese dissident living in London was harassed by the police & had his flat searched. The CCP’s paid supporters were allowed to be near & be seen by Xi but the human rights protestors were barred & put far away. Shame on Cameron and Britain.

Posted by Gesar | Report as abusive

Meanwhile, Obama bows to the Saudi King. I know which I’d rather have as a friend in the 21st century.

Posted by MDFrancis | Report as abusive

Money is the answer. When America stood for hope and human dignity, we had “friends” who stood beside us when we topk a stand, knowing that the Consitution and the symbol of the Statue of Liberty represented the best bet for a successful future. Check out post-WWII Europe.
Now, the only criterion for success in the United States is how rich you are. Money is the measure of a citizen’s worth. A political candidate’s chances depend in a large part on the size of his or her “war chest.” Our Supreme Court has decided that money is speech and that corporations are people.
No wonder our “friends” these days are following our example and going where the money is.

Posted by Boguseconomist | Report as abusive

All this social commentary about ‘kowtowing’, subservience and/or zero sum alliances is rather idiotic / merely speculative diarrhea, not concrete nor quantitative.

Thinking the UK is ‘ditching’ the US for China is simplistic at best. Furthermore the real reason for the UK building trade ties with China is to hedge against a slowing and declining EU (which is economically declining FASTER than the US is)(plus add in the obvious “potential” Brexit dilemma, which although unlikely, is still a REAL possibility, hence necessity). Why is this so hard to understand?

Posted by fjklsjfsk | Report as abusive

As time goes by,relationships change! Not only in case of Britain and china but also for America with Vietnam,Pakistan,Iraq etc.Iraq once was a friend of US getting lot of technology and now?!
World has learnt over years that wars is not the solution for prosperity but friendship is to co.exist together.It will not be surprising one day if Russia and US become good friends at the instance of Syria.
More than killings,the hardship of immigrants/refugees is a serious problem for countries to solve.Also ISIS makes countries united,a blessing in disguise!

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

No.

Posted by Whipsplash | Report as abusive

Relationships between countries continually evolve. Britain will act in its best interests and so will China. Economic cooperation between Britain and China is in the best interests of both countries.

The US would best be served by quietly encouraging China to interact with its allies in a peaceful fashion. China is here to stay in the global economy and the sooner they adopt human rights policies that are reasonably similar to those enjoyed in the West, the better for all concerned. Interaction with Britain can only serve to improve the prospects of improving the rights of Chinese citizens and overall peaceful cooperation with the West. The economic ties will create a mutual vested interest that all sides will want to preserve.

Posted by jmcneill | Report as abusive

Obama should send that bust of Churchill back to England. O, that’s right ,he already did that the first month he was in office. It was one of his first acts as president. When you elect a community organizer as president you can’t expect good judgment or diplomacy to be one of his skills.

Posted by jaguar6cy | Report as abusive

Is there nothing Cameron and Osborne will not do to further lower Britain’s status as a great power? They reduced the armed forces to 142,000, and can’t even fill the slots, ignored China’s blatant violation of the Basic Law in Hong Kong without even a comment. Now they fall all over themselves in the hope of getting some Chinese money. What will China own after its all over? What will Britain remain silent about in return for Chinese cash? True, President Obama has treated Britain terribly, sending back the bust of Churchill almost the first day on the job. But France manages to get by without kowtowing to the US or China. But then France has no Cameron/Osborne conjoined idiots.

Posted by zilwiki | Report as abusive

Is there nothing Cameron and Osborne will not do to further lower Britain’s status as a great power? They reduced the armed forces to 142,000, and can’t even fill the slots, ignored China’s blatant violation of the Basic Law in Hong Kong without even a comment. Now they fall all over themselves in the hope of getting some Chinese money. What will China own after its all over? What will Britain remain silent about in return for Chinese cash? True, President Obama has treated Britain terribly, sending back the bust of Churchill almost the first day on the job. But France manages to get by without kowtowing to the US or China. But then France has no Cameron/Osborne conjoined idiots.

Posted by zilwiki | Report as abusive

I see a few comments below blamed Obama…must have wondered on the Reuters site by accident….They didn’t read the article which calls out the RIGHT of the US government as being the blame for the worlds new view of the US…Obama is not the cause..GW and his ignorance and refusal to get UN approval for the wars in the middle east are to blame…people blaming Obama, don’t know about world affairs…not too surprising though, they get their facts strait out of the mouths of ratings grabbing misleads from another media outlet that rhymes with box…

Posted by iowaproud | Report as abusive

A yet another piece of evidence that UK government is strongly influenced by the City hungry for more business. People on the street in UK see no need or desire for the government to pay lip service to corrupt countries that oppress their own (and other) people.

Posted by Radek.kow1 | Report as abusive

Now CCTV News can refer to the UK as China’s western most semi-autonomous English speaking region.

Posted by jashotwe | Report as abusive