Trust – The key factor currently lacking in UK-China relations
Jonathan Arnott
Chinese Ambassador to Britain Liu Xiaoming during an interview in London, Britain, May 12, 2017. /Xinhua

Chinese Ambassador to Britain Liu Xiaoming during an interview in London, Britain, May 12, 2017. /Xinhua

Editor's note: Jonathan Arnott is a former member of the European Parliament. The article reflects the author's opinions, and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

Relationships must be built on trust. At present, whether the issue is Hong Kong, Huawei or COVID-19, the British and Chinese governments clearly haven't established trust.

The press conference on July 6 delivered by the Chinese ambassador to the United Kingdom, demonstrates the gradual escalation of rhetoric in relations between the two countries. The three issues may seem at first glance to be completely separate, but in reality they are related because they impact upon how the U.K.'s domestic agenda perceives Beijing.

Months from now, once the threat of COVID-19 has passed, there will be a time for examining all actions taken by national governments in response to the outbreak. It is likely that such an examination will show that governments around the world failed to fully appreciate the gravity of the situation until it was too late to prevent a large-scale outbreak. Whenever a new virus is identified, the country where it was first found will inevitably face considerable scrutiny. Yet it seems that criticism of China came first, without awaiting evidence.

There was a significant political shift away from China at that time. Politicians who had opposed Huawei's involvement in the UK's 5G network now had an alternative line of attack.

When perception is key in politics, the fact that the two issues are unconnected in theory does not prevent them from being connected in practice.

When I was a member of the European Parliament, a Brexiteer colleague asked me to speak with representatives of Huawei. I am often skeptical of politicians being lobbied by big business. Lobbying provides a competitive advantage to businesses large enough to be able to afford to lobby; the interests of small businesses can often end up being overlooked.

However, Huawei made a compelling case that the safeguards built into the system, scrutiny from companies using the network, the transparency of the coding, and Chinese law, would be sufficient to ensure safety and integrity of the network. On the other hand, I have not seen any national security advice – and I can respect the precautionary principle: If there is even a reasonable risk of the network being compromised, the level of risk might not be worth taking. Any decision to exclude would need to be evidence-based, with as much of that evidence being published as practical.

A Huawei 5G mobile phone is used to test speed in Huawei's 5G Innovation and Experience Center in London, Britain, January 28, 2020. /Xinhua

A Huawei 5G mobile phone is used to test speed in Huawei's 5G Innovation and Experience Center in London, Britain, January 28, 2020. /Xinhua

The British government is being pulled in two directions. It knows that a trade deal with the United States would be a significant political coup. It likely suspects that this will be easier to achieve with a Republican rather than a Democrat in the White House, and knows that the clock is ticking. There is a desire, at least in the short-term, not to offend the American administration at this time.

Robert Wood Johnson, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, said last week that "trust, especially in something as important as a 5G network, cannot exist with a company such as Huawei that answers to an authoritarian government like China's." In that context, Liu Xiaoming's words at the press conference should be seen unofficially as the Chinese ambassador's response to the American ambassador: "The China business community are all watching how you handle Huawei. If you get rid of Huawei, it sends out a very bad message to other Chinese businesses… so we want to be your friend, we want to be your partner, but if you want to make China a hostile country you have to bear the consequences."

Following on from these two issues, Hong Kong is far more emotive. I expect that the British government decision to permit Hong Kong residents to settle in the United Kingdom will turn out to be a symbolic decision rather than an offer which would be taken up by a huge number of people.

The Chinese ambassador's comments on Huawei should perhaps have received more attention in the British press than they did: It is there, rather than on Hong Kong, where the UK's approach is not yet fully settled. To deny Huawei involvement – after the decision has already been taken to grant it - would be to delay 5G. To change at this stage would be costly and would slow business growth; it is therefore not a decision to be taken lightly.

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