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China Daily Global / 2021-04 / 21 / Page011

UK can't expect to have it both ways

China Daily Global | Updated: 2021-04-21 00:00

Following in the footsteps of the United States and Australia, the United Kingdom's Home Office has finally come up with its own foreign agent registration scheme, in a bid to counter what it claims is "hostile spy activity".

The proposed scheme, which is expected to be announced officially on May 11 by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the Queen's Speech, would require all individuals working on behalf of foreign governments in the country to register their presence; failure to do so would be a criminal offense.

Each country is legitimately entitled to protect itself from whatever threat it identifies. But it is one thing to fend off perceived security threats and another to put all individuals working for a foreign government in the country in the crosshairs of geopolitics.

The UK media have made no secret about precisely which "hostile states" the architects of the scheme have in mind, naming Russia and China.

In fact, when the British intelligence community began serious deliberation on the matter last summer, it was Russia that they were worried about. The UK-Russia relationship is convoluted and fraught with abundant mysteries that make it unfathomable to outsiders. And it is now just as difficult for people to make sense of what is going on with the UK when it comes to China.

Indeed, most people would wonder what has gone wrong lately. Although China has expressed its annoyance at British politicians' inability to accept the UK no longer has sovereignty over Hong Kong, few would believe China constitutes a security threat to the UK. On the contrary, most present-day Chinese would consider the UK to be an ideal business partner for China, especially as the UK is desperately seeking helpmates now that it has left the European Union.

If one listened to what Chinese and British politicians had to say about the two countries' relations over the past decade, it was by and large business, business, and business. The UK did sound and behave weirdly once in a while, including its recent vow to send one of its expensive yet essentially redundant new aircraft carriers to the South China Sea in a show of allegiance to the US.

Perhaps the proposed registration scheme will not make much difference. But if, as the UK media have indicated, China is indeed being viewed as a hostile state in the British eyes, things will become very different, because that changes the nature of the overall relationship. It will prove very difficult to guard against a country as a perceived enemy while at the same time welcoming it as a guest in the hope of sharing its development dividends.


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