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Making Space for China

LONDON – When the United Kingdom announced earlier this month that it had agreed to become a founding member of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), most of the headlines focused not on the news itself, but on the friction the decision had caused between the UK and the United States.

The White House issued a statement urging the British government to “use its voice to push for adoption of high standards." And one senior US administration official was quoted accusing the UK of “constant accommodation of China, which is not the best way to engage a rising power." In fact, it is the US that is advocating the wrong approach.

In the UK, the diplomatic spat served as an occasion for the British press to air criticism from those who believe that the government should adopt a stronger stance on China. For example, they say that the government should have spoken out more forcefully in support of last year's pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, and that it should not have distanced itself from the Dalai Lama (as it seems to have done) during Prime Minister David Cameron's visit to China in 2013.

The UK does need to stand up for itself, but there is no reason for it to become confrontational about internal Chinese matters – especially in the case of Hong Kong, where it lost its standing when it agreed to return the city to Chinese control in 1997.