Free Trade, Yes; Ideology, Not So Much: The UK’s Shifting China Policy 2010-16

Scott A. W. Brown

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Abstract:  Fox and Godement’s (2009) Power Audit of EU-China Relations grouped the EU’s member states into four categories based on their national approaches to relations with, as well as their preferences for, the EU’s policies towards China. In this typology, the UK, at the time governed by New Labour, was deigned an “Ideological Free Trader”—seeking to facilitate greater free trade while continuing to assert its ideological position, namely in the areas of democracy and human rights. Since the Conservative Party took the reins of power in 2010 (in coalition with the Liberal Democrats until 2015), China’s prominence on the UK’s foreign policy agenda has arguably increased. This paper examines the direction of the UK’s China policy since 2010, and asks whether the label “Ideological Free Trader” remains applicable. Through qualitative analysis of the evolving policy approach, it argues that while early policy stances appeared consistent with the descriptor, the emphasis on free trade has grown considerably whilst the normative (ideological) dimension has diminished. Consequently, the UK should be redefined as an “Accommodating Free Trader” (an amalgamation of two of Fox and Godement’s original groups—“Accommodating Mercantilist” and “Ideological Free Trader”).

Keywords:  UK-China relations; China’s rise; foreign policy; Conservative Party; Cameron; Osborne.