MA XUEJING/CHINA DAILY
Chinese President Xi Jinping concluded his maiden state visit to the United Kingdom on Friday. His visit marked the start of a "golden era" of openness and win-win cooperation for both countries, which now intend to build a "global comprehensive strategic partnership" for the 21st century together.
Indeed, Xi's four-day trip has been hailed as a bigger success than his September visit to the United States; and it has been seen as an indication that the UK has bet on China's long-term rise and the U.S.' relative decline. But fruitful as it has been, this diplomatic event will make little difference to the bonds that exist between the three countries.
In other words, the UK is expected to benefit from both its close economic ties with China, as well as its political ties with the U.S., without making them badly intertwined.
True, it "jumped the queue" to join the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank earlier this year, in spite of the objections from Washington. But as UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne has said on more than one occasion, it is economic ties that play a central role in the China-UK relationship.
As a traditional Western power with a long history in Asia, the UK knows how important diplomatic etiquette is to China, and it rolled out the "reddest" carpet for President Xi in a well-designed and forthright manner. But its friendly gesture, which some U.S. politicians deemed as "accommodation" of China, does not necessarily mean that the China-UK partnership is without flaws.
In fact, the UK has keenly observed China's rise and the U.S.' relative decline, which is why it is seeking to strike a balance between them to maximize its interests. It seized the strategic opportunity to join the AIIB to share in China's powerful growth.
The elephant in the room is that China and the UK are unlikely to become sincere political allies, because of their institutional differences. The UK is the originator of Western capitalism and parliamentary democracy, an early advocate of a market-oriented economy and free competition, and a major founder of the modern judicial and civil service systems. It is still a loyal ally of the U.S., given the natural institutional intimacy between them.
On other issues ranging from human rights and religious beliefs, to freedom of speech and diplomatic traditions, Beijing and London also have little in common. That being said, when confronted with the aforementioned disputes and frictions, the UK may refuse to alter its stance and relinquish the moral high ground in exchange for considerable commercial profits. Even the U.S. is more likely to adopt a more flexible attitude given its adherence to pragmatism and double standards.
Besides, the transatlantic U.S.-UK alliance remains the cornerstone of the Western community, and will not be replaced however close Beijing and London become. The NATO-based collective defense system and the Washington-led global political and economic order, too, will remain in the foreseeable future, making sure the U.S. and the UK take the same side at crucial moments.
Therefore, for China and the UK, the golden era is more about forging a community with shared economic and security interests. The UK will try to delicately maintain a healthy relationship with both Beijing and Washington. While China needs to tread carefully to achieve a balanced and stable diplomatic posture based on mutual respect and cooperation, in a bid to realize the new model of major country relationship with the U.S. and consolidate its interaction with Europe.
The author, Ma Xiaolin, is president of blshe.com and a professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University.