how does the UK’s power to push back against the emerging superpower really compare to that of the EU?

Since 1975, the EU has been at the forefront of political efforts to cooperate with and contain China’s threats to the West. In 2019, the EU labeled China “a systemic rival” after attempts to negotiate a trade deal, the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, faltered.

The UK – as an EU member state – was part of these strong collective European responses aimed at trade, limiting the expansion of Chinese influence and putting pressure on China’s human rights reputation. There have been significant trade successes, some positive results in limiting and delaying influence, and limited progress in transforming the Chinese government’s stance on human rights.

Outside the EU, the UK is now looking for partners to work with to curb China’s emerging power, and is unable to exert significant economic or political pressure on China on its own. The UK’s influence through the UN is hampered by the UN’s inability to hold the five permanent members of the Security Council (China, France, Russia, UK and US) to account. The UK has influence through NATO, but NATO’s reach beyond purely military affairs is limited. It is proving difficult to find post-Brexit influence.

The political, military and economic challenges posed by China’s rise have been sharply alleviated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — which has presented the prospect of a new era of tough military resolutions for territorial claims. Other factors include strategic shocks to the global economy from the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and the more recent impact on productivity and supply chain disruption from the ongoing COVID pandemic.

Nationalist politicians such as former US President Donald Trump, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban and even outgoing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson have promised the revival of strong national influence on the world stage, beyond what they describe as a beleaguered international order.

Trump’s central rationale was “Make America Great Again”, while Brexiteers in the UK pointed to an imperial past and the success of a medium-sized power that “rises above its weight”. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Orban in Hungary and opposition politicians in France and Italy all have their own versions of the same isolationist narrative that is gaining traction among the public.

If the 21st century is to become ‘the Chinese century’, collections of states with similar values ​​and interests working together will ensure that this era remains peaceful. The UK needs to find its way back into a functional and mature international player to work with China in a way that does not create national security problems, nor the economy of dependency.

Few countries alone are able to shape the international arena politically, militarily and economically. Contrary to the anti-European idea that bundled sovereignty equals being enslaved, all those who bundle their sovereignty are free to leave, as the UK did. But the cost of leaving can be high, as is currently the case for the UK.

Read more: ​Ukraine conflict: How China could follow Russia’s playbook to increase its own powers

Politically, militarily and economically, only the United States and China can exert influence without the help of a coalition. Militarily, Russia has shown its capabilities in Ukraine and has disrupted rather than affected the global economy. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait may be able to achieve a similar disruption with their oil supplies. There are no European powers, including the UK, that can do this alone.

This is the essential contradiction in the logic of Brexit. Britain had much more influence when it directed and projected its norms, values ​​and preferences internationally through the EU. The UK strengthened its affiliations through the collective power of 400 million people, rather than having to quickly form coalitions of the willing, event by event or issue by issue.

Germany takes over from the UK

What the UK offered the EU was an effective political bridge across the Atlantic and to much of the rest of the world. This role was valuable in conjunction with EU membership and its historical influence in the former British Empire and Commonwealth countries. No longer a member of the EU, Britain’s role as preferential mediator has been wasted, even though it remained firmly within NATO. Germany now plays the role of Atlantic bridge for the US to the EU. In addition, Commonwealth countries no longer have to pay much attention to British preferences.

All this is important in the context of the China question. Membership and status as the leading voice in the EU provided the UK with comprehensive shields and a platform to counter some of the less desirable elements of Chinese behavior.

On the right a man in a suit and on the right a woman in yellow.
The US is now looking to Germany to build a bridge to Europe, rather than the UK.

The EU – as a civilian superpower and largely non-militarized diplomat – has been very successful in mitigating the effects of dumping from China (pushing goods below cost into a market to eliminate local competition) and to tackle influence vigorously.

The EU — as a close-knit club of nations — was designed by nature to try to avoid the worst divide-and-rule strategies China has employed in Africa, started in Latin America, and has had some partial successes with Australia as well.

China’s superiority in developing artificial intelligence, offensive cyber operations, appropriation of intellectual property and its perceived strengths in quantum computing mean there is a very high potential for friction between the UK and China.

Brexit is done, so Britain now needs to find new partnerships that work. It may be more difficult than some might expect.

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