Has the United States Lost Its Best Friend to Its Biggest Rival?

As Xi Jinping, president of China, toured Britain and promised large investments, the Chinese word “kowtow” was much heard. The Oxford dictionary defines it as a prostration in which one kneels “in worship or submission” — and contemporaneously, as acting “in an excessively subservient manner.”

Both bear on the presidential state visit.

Historically, the person who received the deepest kowtow was the Chinese emperor himself; the person showing respect knelt three times, each time touching his head on the ground three times … The first British ambassadors, at the end of the 18th century, wouldn’t do that, so full embassy was denied: Emperor Quianlong sent a letter to George III, which made clear his view of foreigners as “barbarians” inevitably inferior to China.

An embassy was not admitted until the British and French beat China into submission in the First (1839-42) and Second (1856-60) Opium Wars. The victors both received trading concessions, while Hong Kong was ceded to the British. For decades after that, the U.K. was the most powerful nation on earth, visiting on China — whose rulers were hugely sensitive to status — great humiliation.

Now, humiliation is reversed. …

Xi is being given the highest honors the British state can bestow. Queen Elizabeth II gave him a banquet and a suite in Buckingham Palace …; he addressed Parliament; he was attended constantly by either the queen, or by Prime Minister David Cameron.

This kind attention is because China may invest up to $46 billion in various projects… China will use the City of London for international banking and currency and other trading; and will favor Britain when importing services.

In this newfound amity, there has been no public mention from the British side of human or civil rights. No lectures on the imprisonment of dissidents, nor the suppression of already limited press freedoms, nor even of the vast corruption that still plagues the country, in spite of Xi’s campaign against it. This silence — it’s widely said — is Britain’s shame …

These polemics are likely to fade back into debates among specialists and activists: but there is a yet larger issue, now coming to the fore.

Britain has seen itself as the United States’ best friend on the international scene for more than a century. I had thought that we British overdid its importance — till I heard the president of the United States tell an audience in the House of Commons in May 2013 that it was special, very special, “because of the values and beliefs that have united our people through the ages.”

That doesn’t seem to have stood the test of time. This past year has been special only for the  disquiet that’s crept into the relationship, as successive high U.S. officials deplored cuts to the U.K.’s defense capacity. Then, in March, the disquiet became acrimony, as the U.K. headed the list of Western states to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment bank, with only minimal warning to the United States. One senior official spoke of a “constant accommodation” of China by the Brits.

Now, the U.S. administration believes that, according to another unnamed source, “there was a major rethink at the highest levels of the U.K. government that [they] were going to fall over ourselves to send a signal that [they] want a good relationship with China. It’s a pretty un-British thing to do.” It is un-British: being British has meant being close to the United States — not, apparently insouciantly, hacking away at ties that have bound the two main Anglophone nations in favor of a new and sudden Asian passion.

It’s a very large gamble on the still-rising power; and implicitly, it’s a bet against the United States, which, while still by far the richest and most powerful state, is steadily declining relative to China. That major rethink was led by the chancellor, George Osborne, Cameron’s likely successor when he stands down before the next election in 2020: it seems to have included such considerations as the globally-perceived weakness of this and likely future U.S. presidents, the permanent jam in Washington politics and the turning inward of the U.S. establishment — especially on the right.

Further, a referendum sometime in the next two years on British membership in the European Union may prompt an exit from the Union — and the need for this middle-sized state to find new, big friends. ….

A very large shift in the U.K.’s international posture may thus be on the cards: if confirmed, the consequences will be much larger than those for the country itself. It will underscore the United States’ weakening position; further alarm the other EU members, who would see a British exit — “Brexit” — as major damage; weaken the once-strong U.K. voice in the realm of human and civil rights, and at the same time bind it to a China whose growth, though still almost three times higher than that of the U.K., is slowing and whose human rights record is still dire.

There’s a different possibility, not much heard among the criticism: that the U.K. could be a bridge, not just between  Europe and the United States, but between China and the United States — as Margaret Thatcher was between the Soviet Union of Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan. And there could be a possibility that the closer relationship may  — contrary to Ai Weiwei’s forecast disappointment — help China improve.

At the press conference he gave on Wednesday, Xi said “there is always room for improvement in the world. China is ready to increase co-operation with U.K. and other countries over human rights.”

Does that have real meaning? Or was it simply a way of fending off aggressive questions from British journalists, not something Xi faces in his own country.

It seems, prima facie, unlikely. But we have to hope there is meaning there, and that Britain has not sold the “values and beliefs” Obama lauded four years ago for a mess of money. That would be a bad deal.