The United Kingdom had a glorious history as an empire. As a nation the U.K. is not a typical democratic system; she maintains a royal crown yet she has contributed to democracy and capitalism in a significant way. As an empire the U.K. practiced colonialism zealously enabling her flag flying in sunshine twenty four hours a day (Perhaps I should say daylight, since the Sun does not seem to favor London). The British footprint or occupation was appearing all over the world, including all five continents and numerous isles in the four oceans. The U.K. is a realist in her evolution as a nation; she embraces democracy but remains as a royal kingdom to this day. She lost the entire North America yielding to the American Revolution which claimed independence from her. The fact that the British Empire did not move her palace to New York or Toronto in the eighteenth century might be interpreted as the natural result of a Royal government with limited vision. The royal family perhaps never entertained the idea of moving away from Buckingham Palace. The political figures as subjects of the Crown thought and behaved as smart short-term realists just to satisfy the ruling Crown. They never worried the day that the British isles would be the limiting factor in sustaining the empire.
China had been a great nation over several millennia. China had been called an empire only occasionally in her five thousand years of history simply because colonialism was never in the Chinese dictionary or on her emperors’ minds until she became a colonial target of the Western powers led by the British Empire.
Different from the continent of North America, China has had a rich culture and strong economy despite of the fact that China had no navy. The Ming emperors, Yongle (1402-1424), Hongxi (1424-1425) and Xuande (1425-1435) were pro-commerce to enrich their treasury. Emperor Yongle (Zhu Di) sent the famous 'Ambassador' Cheng He (1371-1435) sailing the world seven times with a fleet consisting of ships over 400 feet long dwarfing any ship in the world at that time. Cheng's disappointing report to the Emperors, that the rest of the world were culturally backward, had made the Ming Court angry which made an edict to forbid ocean exploration to foreign land as a waste of the emperor’s treasury. Most political figures in the Chinese dynasties behaved like realists with short-term views. All the maps and records of Ming Dynasty’s ocean exploration were ordered to be burnt except a few were hidden and eventually passed on to the hands of foreigners. (Reference Matteo Ricci, 1552-1610 and Michele Ruggieri, 1543-1607 and their writings.)
The U.K.-China relation in the late 19th to early 20th century was a sad story for the Chinese. The British started the infamous Opium War forcing China to accept opium trade and to open her ports to the British merchants. As the victor of the Sino-British wars, the British Empire demanded not only huge amount of silver as reparation but also forced China to cede the Hong Kong island in perpetuity to her. Perpetuity was a very long time compared to Russia’s 25 years of rights in control of Da Lian, a Chinese freeze free northern port (Port Arthur). This right was signed over to Japan (the Portsmouth Treaty, Russia also evacuated from China’s Manchuria and recognized Korea to be Japan’s territory of influence not China’s protectorate) after Russia lost in the 1905 Russo-Japanese war. The 26th U.S. President, Theodore Roosevelt was the mediator for the Portsmouth Treaty and won the Nobel Peace Prize for balancing the Russian and Japanese powers in Asia at the expense of China. Roosevelt made a realist decision far from justice and fairness. China was too weak to alter any of the unequal treaties infringed on her sovereignty. Given Hong Kong to the U.K. was just one case demonstrating that in foreign relations strong nations are realists (never idealists) and weak nations have no voices nor rights. Fortunately, China survived the invasions and WW II, the U.K. made a realist decision to return Hong Kong back to China on July 1, 1997.
The U.K. is a declining empire ever since WW I and further damaged after WW II, but by her clever and realistic foreign policy allying with the rising superpower, the U.S., she remains on the center stage of the world. As a realist, the U.K. recognizes that the U.S. is the dominating player in world affairs. She acted as the strongest ally of the U.S., of course, without harming her own national interests. Being the ruler of Hong Kong over 150 years, the U.K. could not help but recognized the change of the Mainland China, especially over the recent three decades. China had struggled to build the nation avoiding the control of the Soviet Union. She had experimented with communism and learned bitter lessons. She had embraced capitalism in planned steps and had risen to be the second largest economy in the world. It is clear to the U.K. that China is no longer an “Asian Patient” and China has grown mature enough to take a proper place on the world stage. The U.K. may not be the first (nor the only) West nation to appreciate China’s transformation and continuous reform but she certainly appears to be the first to take a realist step to embrace China’s rise. In contrast, the U.S. seems to wish away China’s rise.
When China advocated a plan of stimulating the economic development for the entire world by proposing ‘the one belt and one road’ (OBOR) vision, a collaborative infrastructure development program bridging Asia, Europe and Africa in joint commerce development, the U.K., despite of the U.S. displeasure, took the initiative to join the China created Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) to support the OBOR program. Observing the current activities between the two nations, it seems that the U.K. is forming a close bond with China. One wonders whether that is a short-term foreign policy or a long-term diplomatic relation? China’s President Xi Jinping visited the U.K. and received a royal “Royal Treatment” arousing the attention and envy of many heads of states. China has promised to invest $10B in U.K. and most recently the People’s Bank of China announced plan to issue Chinese government sovereign debt in RMB in London. Do all these signal the beginning of a long-term warm relationship between China and UK forgetting the Opium Wars and colonization of Hong Kong? So far, the U.K. seems to be the beneficiary of that warm relationship. However, no one can say that the current warm UK-China relation will definitely last long but we can say that as realists both China and the U.K. currently seem to desire their warm relation to last long. The increased activities between UK and China (likewise between Germany and China) do beg the question why is the U.S. holding out a hostile policy towards China? The U.S. has always been a realist just like the U.K., must she choreograph an anti-China play to maintain her supreme position in the world? No, it does not look like a good realist play!