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How Boris Johnson will approach China-UK economic ties

(ecf.org.cn)        Updated: 2019-08-07

With Boris Johnson now the United Kingdom's prime minister, will China-UK economic ties turn for the better?

China is the UK's second-largest trading partner outside the European Union, while the UK is China's third inside the EU. According to China's General Administration of Customs, in 2018, Sino-UK bilateral trade reached $80.44 billion, a year-on-year increase of 1.8 percent. Over 500 Chinese firms have invested in the UK.

New UK leader would be "pro China"

Johnson has shown a positive attitude to strengthening Sino-UK economic relations before.

In 2013, as London mayor, Johnson paid a trade visit to China and said: "China's recent economic growth is nothing short of staggering and the opportunities that this presents for London are huge."

In 2017, as the UK's foreign secretary, Johnson said that China was a major country with extensive international influence, and that the UK shared similar or the same opinions with China on a series of important international issues, especially a common stance and interest in promoting free trade and maintaining an open market. He said the UK attached great importance to developing its relations with China and stood ready to enhance bilateral high-level exchanges and consolidate cooperation in various fields, in order to push forward a "golden era" of UK-China relations for sustained development.

As recently as July, the new UK leader hinted that he might be more amicable to China. He said his government would be very "pro-China" in an interview with Hong Kong-based broadcaster Phoenix TV.

Brexit's likely effects

Britain had been due to leave the EU on March 29, but its membership of the bloc had been extended by the EU Council until October 31 after efforts to agree to a withdrawal deal failed.

Prime Minister Johnson has unveiled a Brexit Cabinet committee tasked with handling the UK's preparations for an exit from the EU, which is considered the government's "No 1 priority".

Li Wei, a professor of international relations at Renmin University of China, said he thought Brexit would encourage the UK to strengthen foreign economic and trade ties, and give the UK greater autonomy in its foreign economic policies.

Zhou Xiaoming, former ministerial counselor with the economic and commercial office at the Chinese embassy in London, pointed out that as the EU is the UK's largest export market, a no-deal exit is bound to bring economic shocks to the UK. Therefore, the UK urgently needs to negotiate bilateral trade agreements for new markets and strong cooperation with countries outside the EU.

A UK-China free trade agreement (FTA) would certainly be a priority for London. However, it falls behind a UK-US FTA in immediate desirability, and this could become a sticking point, given the current trade tensions between the United States and China.

Zhou said China is expected to play an important role in helping Britain out of its economic plight. Both sides have a strong desire for a free trade agreement. China is expected to become the UK's fastest-growing overseas market.

In addition, considering how the US is putting pressure on the UK on issues such as Huawei and 5G, how Johnson will deal with these may bring uncertainty to Sino-UK economic relations.