Western policymakers must understand that there can never be a trouble-free relationship with China. Sooner or later, they will have to take a firm stand on issues of genuine concern.

If one story in 2015 epitomised the challenge faced by the Western world in coming to terms with a rising China, it was the state visit of President Xi Jinping to the United Kingdom from 20–23 October. Such visits are normally highly scripted and choreographed, involving more form than substance, and in many ways, this one was no exception. Much of the pageantry in which the UK excels was on display. And the perennial fascination of China’s Marxist–Leninist leadership with the British royal family was equally in evidence.

But in contrast to most state visits, which pass largely unremarked upon in the domestic and international media, this visit attracted endless column inches and much television footage, not to mention extensive social-media commentary. At issue was what appeared to be a fundamental change in UK policy towards China, in which political and national-security considerations, and associated issues such as concern for human rights, appeared to give way to an approach dominated by economics and commerce. This appeared to create the conditions for China to exercise greater political leverage over UK foreign policy and to drive wedges into the Euro-Atlantic alliance.

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Nigel Inkster is Director of Future Conflict and Cyber Security at the IISS.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

February-March 2016

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