It was already clear that Theresa May’s decision to review the Hinkley Point power plant had not gone down well in China. The nuclear plant upgrade is backed by billions of pounds of Chinese money and is also intended by Beijing as a key opportunity to showcase the country’s nuclear technology. So when the delay to giving the go-ahead was announced in July, China responded to suggestions its technology could not be trusted with a veiled threat saying its government would not ‘tolerate’ such accusations. Today, that veil has been lifted even more as the country steps up its pressure on Theresa May to give the £18bn project the green light. China’s ambassador to Britain, Liu Xiaoming had this to say in the FT this morning:
The China-UK relationship is at a crucial historical juncture. Mutual trust should be treasured even more. I hope the UK will keep its door open to China and that the British government will continue to support Hinkley Point — and come to a decision as soon as possible so that the project can proceed smoothly.
Xiaoming’s language might have all the cadences of politeness and good manners, but his message is nonetheless stark. Whilst Xiaoming is primarily talking about Hinkley Point, the elephant in the room is Brexit; he appears to be gently indicating that if Britain goes back on its word to build the new nuclear plant, things could become trickier for Britain (say, for instance, in negotiating trade deals) at such an important and ‘historical juncture’. The Chinese ambassador goes on to say that ‘if Britain’s openness is a condition for bilateral co-operation, then mutual trust is the very foundation on which this is built’. The suggestion? Row back on Hinkley and China will interpret the decision as Britain closing the door to China. And that will not go down well.
But though the warning is stark, we can at least be reassured that Liu Xiaoming hasn’t gone as far in criticising Britain as he has done with other countries in the past. He has a track record of being Beijing’s attack dog, having sparked a diplomatic row with Japan when he compared the country to Voldemort from the Harry Potter books in 2014. So in a sense, Theresa May has escaped lightly so far. But China is making one thing clear: further delays or a U-turn over Hinkley would escalate the war of words and pre-empt a frost falling over relations between Britain and China.