The Price of Friendship

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China’s President Xi Jinping arrives Tuesday for his first state visit to the U.K. since he assumed control of the Communist Party three years ago. He’ll be on friendly terrain. Prime Minister David Cameron was in Beijing only two years ago, pursuing what he called a “lasting friendship” with China. Last month Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne went even further when, during his own trip to China, he declared that his goal was for Britain to become China’s “best partner in the West.”

The U.K. is eager to strengthen its ties with China. But as Mr. Cameron’s government seeks to ingratiate itself with Beijing, it has done so at the expense of Hong Kong and Tibet and relations with the U.S.

In Hong Kong, the U.K. has failed to assert the guarantees for autonomy and democratization contained in the Sino-British Joint Declaration even as Beijing has interfered more overtly in the territory’s affairs. When the city’s pro-democracy movement gained unprecedented momentum last year, the Cameron government quickly fell in line with Beijing’s plan to control the selection of the city’s chief executive. To add insult to injury, Britain expressed “disappointment” when Hong Kong’s democrats defeated Beijing’s plan.

On Tibet, the U.K. has also buckled to Chinese pressure. Britain’s interests and responsibilities there run deep, even if they aren’t enshrined in a treaty. London once supported China’s illegitimate claims during its struggle with Tsarist Russia in the 19th century for influence in Central Asia. But at least back then London stopped short of acknowledging full Chinese sovereignty, opting instead for a nebulous concept of “suzerainty” under which Tibet was to enjoy self-rule within the Chinese empire.

In 2008 Britain declared the old arrangement anachronistic and accepted China’s full claims to Tibet. Now, U.K. government officials refuse to meet with the Dalai Lama, even though prominent Chinese dissidents favor such meetings.

Such concessions only fuel China’s ambitions. Beijing claims Tibet as one of its self-declared “core interests.” Until recently this term, which Beijing also applies to Taiwan and Xinjiang, meant that something was beyond compromise. It was used to rebuff criticism of its policies and to forestall international acceptance of Taiwan’s de facto independence. Now Beijing appears to be pursuing a more expansive approach. It has forced the repatriation of Uighur refugees from Thailand and meddled in the domestic affairs of Nepal.

Meanwhile, a top official defined “core interests” to include “the political regime; the sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of the nation; and people’s livelihoods, sustainable economic development of society and other major interests.” In other words, virtually anything Beijing likes. This could apply to maritime claims or to Indian territory Beijing calls “Southern Tibet.” Beijing, which has already dramatically increased the number of border incursions across its disputed border with India, might use this to justify an incursion if the selection of the next Dalai Lama is announced at an ancient Tibetan monastery in India’s Arunachal state.

Meanwhile, London’s drive to befriend Beijing has upset Washington. Most recently Britain became a founding member of the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, an institution intended to rival the World Bank in its financing of emerging markets. Under Beijing’s leadership, the AIIB will be less transparent and less accountable. Joining it was a political decision to curry favor with Beijing. But it revived American concerns, ignited by the trans-Atlantic struggle over maintaining the EU arms embargo on China, that London will act toward China without sufficient appreciation of Washington’s role in Asia.

Unfortunately, London’s desire to be China’s “best partner” extends no further than the Communist Party and its privileged business elite. London gives a cold shoulder to the people working to change China into a constitutional democracy based on the rule of law. A bad decision on a long-term U.K. visa for the dissident artist Ai Weiwei was hastily reversed, but the U.K.’s posture on human rights in China has remained weak even as Mr. Xi has directed the most severe crackdown on human rights in decades. Hundreds of lawyers and activists were rounded up over the summer and prominent dissidents, such as the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo and Xu Zhiyong, remain in jail as Mr. Xi arrives for his state visit.

Mr. Xi’s London sojourn will be full of pomp and ceremony. If Mr. Cameron truly wants to be a friend to the Chinese people and not just the Communist Party, he will take seriously London’s commitments to Hong Kong, meet the Dalai Lama as well as the elected prime minister of Tibet’s exiled government, and lead Europe in discussions with the U.S. about shared interests in freedom, trade and security in Asia. That would be an assertion of leadership, rather than an abrogation of principle.

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