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?
The challenge, therefore, is to find a way out of the problem that saves face on all sides. Here is a suggestion.
The development of any new nuclear station at Bradwell is some years away and will remain so whatever happens to Hinkley Point. The Bradwell development will no doubt be tendered openly. Whatever half promises have been made to the Chinese are irrelevant. No British government can bind its successors. Beijing, which may actually be pleased if the ill-fated Hinkley project is dropped or postponed indefinitely, should be told it would be welcome to bid for Bradwell or other projects provided it can be demonstrated that all cyber espionage against UK commercial and industrial targets has been stopped and has remained stopped for five years. Of course, some espionage can go undetected. That is why real trust will only come when a comprehensive cyber security treaty is signed that binds all sides.
Trust is earned and not achieved by threats. Leadership authority is also earned through experience in the face of pressure. Mrs May will no doubt be confronted by many tests from all sides. That is why she cannot afford to give way in the face of the first crude challenge.
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