Coronavirus has accelerated the deterioration in relations between the United States and China. The US Presidential election is turning into a question of who can be tougher on China and regardless of who wins in November, US policy is going to become more hawkish. As I say in the magazine this week, this has major implications for the UK. It is going to become much harder for the government to further an economic relationship with China while maintaining Britain’s unique security partnership with the US.
But just as this crisis has sped up a change in American attitudes to China, it has done the same within the Tory party. One influential Tory MP who wants to see a tougher line on Beijing says that without coronavirus, ‘it would have taken ten years to wise up to China. It has completely changed the terms of debate.’ In a sign of this, one senior No. 10 figure tells me that substantial concessions will have to be offered to backbenchers, for the government not to lose a vote on the Chinese company Huawei’s involvement in the development of the UK’s 5G network.
Hawkishness on China is soon going to become a feature of the new Toryism. One question after last year’s election was what would keep together the Tory electoral coalition once the issues of Corbyn and Brexit had vanished. Well, Sino-scepticism could become one of the things that bonds the party. Different parts of the Tory coalition are united by their suspicion of Beijing: many of the old Cameron modernisers who are now horrified by China’s human rights abuses; the Tories who believe that no high-tech UK industrial strategy can succeed in the party’s new ‘red wall’ seats unless China’s plans to dominate the industries of the future are countered; and those who regard the ‘special relationship’ with the US as a pillar of UK foreign policy.
At the moment, the government’s language doesn’t really reflect this shift in Conservative opinion. One reason for this may well be Downing Street’s concerns over personal protective equipment, much of which is sourced from China. If the UK engages in heavy criticism of Beijing, it is not hard to believe that China’s ‘wolf-warrior’ diplomacy would lead to Britain being cut off by Chinese suppliers. This is another argument for the UK becoming more self-sufficient in medical supplies.