UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, September 12 2019. Picture: POOL VIA RETUERS/DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, September 12 2019. Picture: POOL VIA RETUERS/DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS

Berlin — The UK is heading for a damaging showdown with China as it takes on Beijing over Hong Kong and Huawei Technologies.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has criticised Beijing’s planned imposition of a security law on the former British territory of Hong Kong, and is taking steps to exclude Huawei from its fifth-generation (5G) mobile networks by lining up potential replacements.

The upshot is that China has become an overriding foreign policy priority of the Johnson government just as it attempts to reach a deal with the EU on future relations. It’s a challenge that risks leaving the UK out in front on its own, having left the shelter of the bloc of about-450 million people on January 31 to pursue its Brexit ambitions.

China’s Hong Kong representation delivered a clear message to Britain on Wednesday evening to keep its hands off. The UK has no power of sovereignty, nor does it have power of governing or “supervision” over Hong Kong after its return to China in 1997, the city’s office of the commissioner of China’s ministry of foreign affairs said in a statement.

“Hong Kong affairs brook no external interference,” China’s Ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, said on Twitter, warning UK politicians to “stop interfering in China’s internal affairs”.

More sceptical

Jeremy Hunt, a Conservative MP and former foreign minister, opened a new front on Thursday with an op-ed in the Times of London warning that Taiwan, the separately ruled island that China regards as part of its territory, “should worry us more”.

“In its willingness to abandon Hong Kong’s ‘one country, two systems’, China may also be signalling that it has given up hope of a peaceful reunification with Taiwan in favour of a military solution,” Hunt wrote. “Were that to be the case the implications for western democracies would be extraordinarily dangerous.”

One potential bonus for Johnson in escalating tensions with China lies with the US, where the Trump administration has been prodding allies globally to adopt a more sceptical stance to Beijing. That includes shunning technological advances such as the 5G capabilities offered by Huawei, which Washington says are a security risk.

Johnson gave the Chinese company the green light in January to supply parts of the UK’s 5G network, angering the Trump administration. But the prime minister and his team have become far more sceptical of China since the coronavirus pandemic hit the UK.

In the face of growing opposition to China among his Conservative Party and Britain’s international allies, Johnson is now seeking to limit Huawei’s role. The government held talks in May with Japanese technology company NEC as part of efforts to diversify the range of equipment providers for the UK’s 5G networks, a person familiar with the matter said. Samsung Electronics is also being looked at as a possible option, the person said.

Grave concern

The UK’s reconsideration of Huawei is likely to influence decisions on its role in countries from Canada to Germany, where there are already signs of growing resistance to the Shenzhen-based company. Canadian operators Bell and Telus this week both selected Swedish telecoms equipment maker Ericsson and Nokia of Finland to build their 5G networks, while in Germany, Telefonica Deutschland opted for Ericsson.

The more immediate anger is trained on China’s treatment of Hong Kong. Whereas EU foreign ministers avoided any threat of sanctions and instead expressed “grave concern” at Beijing’s actions with regard to the territory, the UK — which did not take part in the EU call since it is no longer a member of the bloc — stepped up with a concrete response.

Johnson, in an op-ed published in the Times of London and South China Morning Post newspapers on Wednesday, offered a haven for as many as three-million Hong Kong inhabitants if China imposed the security law, escalating tension with Beijing. “We will honour our obligations and provide an alternative,” he said.

The irony is that the UK is effectively leading Europe’s response to what are widely held concerns of China’s increasingly assertive stance, just as it threatens to break with the bloc without a trade deal. Germany and France in particular are forging plans for a stronger Europe to better fend off China, with stronger investment screening, a more coherent industrial strategy and more unity in dealings with Beijing.

Underscoring and complicating Johnson’s bind, the two British institutions that dominate Hong Kong’s banking system on Wednesday lined up behind Beijing: HSBC, born in the 19th century as the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corp, and Standard Chartererd both endorsed the proposed new security law.

‘Blatantly breaching’

Plans for what was supposed to have been a year of EU-China dialogue were derailed by the coronavirus pandemic. On Wednesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese President Xi Jinping  postponed an EU-China summit planned for September in Leipzig to a later date.

Ultimately, the UK is a country of about 65-million whose economy is through the floor as it sets out to forge post-Brexit relations in a post-pandemic world. And it’s up against a country of 1.4-billion on an ascendancy that seems inexorable whatever Trump throws at it.

In the end, says Janka Oertel, director of the Asia programme at the European Council of Foreign Relations in Berlin, whatever Europe’s concerns over Hong Kong, for China “there is no problem in just breaking the Sino-British declaration, blatantly breaching it, and thinking you can get away with it, and guess what, they probably can”.

As China’s ambassador to Italy, Li Junhua, wrote on June 1: “Do not underestimate the Chinese will on Hong Kong.”