Just before Xi Jinping visited the US last month, President Barack Obama warned that he was prepared to sanction China over cyber crime. His stern message stood in contrast to the stance in the UK ahead of the Chinese leader’s visit this week, which saw officials haggle over whether the Sino-British relationship had entered a “golden decade” or a “golden era”.
The US and UK both lined up suitable pomp for the Chinese leader. Mr Xi was feted with a 21-gun salute at the White House and a state banquet. In Britain, he will dine at Buckingham Palace and address parliament.
But China experts in Washington say that in almost every other way, the two Atlantic allies have diverged in the way they treat the rising Pacific power.
Evan Medeiros, head of the Asia practice at Eurasia Group and a former top Asia adviser to Mr Obama, says Britain is misguided in its China approach.
“If there is one truism in managing relations with a rising China, it is that if you give in to Chinese pressure, it will inevitably lead to more Chinese pressure,” he says.
“London is playing a dangerous game of tactical accommodation in the hopes of economic benefits, which could lead to more problems down the line.”
While the US tries to strike a balance between pushing for a constructive relationship and chastising China over issues from human rights to cyber espionage to aggressive action in the South China Sea, David Cameron, the UK prime minister, and George Osborne, his chancellor, have been accused of selling out to boost trade and win Chinese investment.
During a much criticised recent visit to Xinjiang, the Chinese province where the Communist party has persecuted the ethnic locals, Mr Osborne said he wanted to “take a risk” with the China relationship, in an approach that Washington sees as appeasing China for economic advantage.
“What is concerning is the message that has been sent that commerce and economic co-operation is the only metric that will guide the UK’s policy towards China,” says Tom Wright, a foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution.
While the US is worried about the “Hollandisation” of Britain — abandoning the pursuit of power as it spends less on defence and steps back from playing a role on the international stage — officials are particularly disconcerted with its stance on China.
The British Foreign Office rejected suggestions the UK was sacrificing its principles for trade, saying the government was “committed to engaging with China on human rights and ministers will continue to raise our human rights concerns with counterparts”.
US-UK ties suffered in March when the Obama administration lambasted Britain’s “constant accommodation” of China. The rebuke came after the UK gave the White House little notice that it would become the first G7 country to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a $50bn lending institution that China founded to counter the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.
“The thing that upset us was that it was done in almost zero consultation with the US,” says a former administration official. “Britain didn’t just undermine the US. It undermined the entire G7.”
The UK stance marks a turning point from 2012 when Mr Cameron met the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, prompting China to freeze out British officials for more than a year.
“The Chinese very effectively played hardball against the British,” says one former senior US official. “There was a major rethink at the highest levels of the UK government that we were going to fall over ourselves to send a signal that we want a good relationship with China. It’s a pretty un-British thing to do.”
Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, says Mr Cameron looks weak in comparison to Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, who has been more willing to raise human rights issues with Beijing.
“She started early on, she was unapologetic, and the Chinese got used to it,” says Ms Richardson.
Chris Johnson, a former top China analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency, also questions the UK approach but says Britain is at a disadvantage compared with the US when dealing with China because while “Barack Obama can stand next to Xi Jinping and tell him the ways in which he sucks, UK leaders cannot do that”.
But he adds Britain needs to be careful about the investments it seeks from China. He says China is engaging in what Mao Zedong described as “capture the countryside and then take the cities,”, referring to the way Chinese companies are making inroads into critical sectors.
Huawei this year got the green light to invest in Britain after a panel concluded it did not pose a security risk, a different situation from the US where it faces huge mistrust.
China and the UK will this week announce that Chinese companies will take a one-third stake in a UK nuclear project.
Patrick Cronin, an Asia expert at the Center for a New American Security, says the UK needs to be careful to maintain a balance between national security and economic interests, particularly as China targets areas such as energy, telecoms and finance.
“There is a growing concern in Washington about China’s intentions with respect to deepening ties with our key ally in Britain,” says Mr Cronin. “The Chinese are definitely insinuating themselves way into the inner sanctum of the British national security [world] through these investments.”
One congressional staffer says the US is concerned that the UK is not acting as a strong ally in terms of sticking up for international norms, something that is particularly pertinent as the US prepares to challenge Chinese claims to sovereignty in disputed waters in the South China Sea.
“I don’t think there are any immediate consequences even if you buy into the view that Cameron is bringing the UK into an era of golden irrelevance,” he says. “But if this is a glide path over the next decade towards the Hollandisation of the UK, then that will have implications and we will have to reassess not just on Asia but on a number of areas.”
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