A Chinese Test For Theresa May

  • Date: 09/08/16
  • Nick Butler, Financial Times

All new leaders face tests. Do they mean what they say? Will they flinch or give way under pressure? For a prime minister the tests can come from any direction — from the trades unions, from the Kremlin, from political opponents, from dissident backbenchers. Theresa May’s first test as British premier has come from the Chinese in the form of a remarkable article in the Financial Times.

Liu Xiaoming, the Chinese ambassador to the court of St James, does not like the idea that the new UK government should be reconsidering the plan to build a nuclear power station at Hinkley Point in southwest England, and by implication the idea that Chinese companies should own, build, operate and control a further nuclear plant at Bradwell in Essex, in the east of the country.

The article is puzzling. What sort of diplomat negotiates on serious issues through the media? Wouldn’t they normally work discreetly to identify the cause of the problem — if there is one — and then seek to find a quiet solution? Issuing threats is not very diplomatic. Indeed, the article reads as if it had been written by a PR firm instructed to put pressure on ministers. One wonders how Beijing would react if the British ambassador there were to write an article demanding that Hong Kong be allowed to choose its own leaders.

The article talks loftily about trust, but how much trust exists when GCHQ, the UK government’s technical security service, has to spend money making sure Chinese companies working in the UK are operating within the law and even more money countering cyber espionage against British companies and institutions? Why do British and other foreign businessmen visiting Beijing have to keep their phones and computers with them at all times to prevent them being milked for information?

The point that seems to be missed is that Mrs May as a new prime minister cannot afford to give in to the first threat she faces. To blink is to fail and to be seen to have failed. How could she go into a tough European negotiation on the terms of Brexit having bent to the first gust of wind from the east?

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