Since several months ago, we have been witnessing a series of dramatic episodes in the world’s geopolitical stage. Practically every major country has racheted up their engagement with China. That is ushering in a period of Big Diplomacy, as the world looks for a new balance in a polycentric reality. Today, let us zoom in on England:
Queen Elizabeth II is nearing the end of her reign of 60-plus years. Last month, we saw her make perhaps the biggest effort of her life in hosting a foreign leader’s state visit to Britain. Looking old, but determined and energetic, the Queen was set to forge a special relationship between Britain and China. Through vast and rich symbolisms, and marshalling the entire Royal family to host almost two-thirds of the proceedings of Xi’s visit, she was conveying to her people that this will be one of her important legacies and, more than that, a beam in Britain’s new destiny.
The Queen rolled out “the reddest of red carpets” for Xi Jingping and Madame Peng. She rode with Xi in the “Diamond Jubilee Gold State Coach”. Xi received an unprecedented 103-gun salute, 40 of which were “extra” from the Queen (20 at the inspection ground of the Royal Guards, and 20 upon arrival at Buckingham Palace where the Xi’s were invited to stay). The pomp and pageantry of the parade up the decked-up Mall to the Palace involved more than 200 Horse Guards and Grenadiers in their full ceremonial uniforms, a protocol reminiscent of a Royal Wedding or Jubilee, and possibly second only to a Coronation.
You can look up the list of accomplishments for Xi’s trip yourselves online, which included 150-plus agreements. On balance, the Chinese were like gift-bearing magis, but these are not just “gimmes”. They involved big and potentially long-lasting “processes”, such as the issuance of the first RMB-denominated bonds outside of China/Hong Kong, investments in nuclear power plants and high-speed rails, research and development of green-environmental taxicabs and, making Scotland the western terminal of China’s “One-Belt One-Road” initiative. And that is just a sample portion of the haul.
No wonder people on both sides were searching for the appropriate lexicon around the color Gold to describe what has begun — Golden Age, Golden Era, Golden Decade, Golden Period, Golden Week, Golden Moment …? The official designation, however, is perhaps the most informative and articulate. Both sides agreed to a formal declaration of a “comprehensive global cooperative partnership”. And that is what the Queen sees as befitting a celebratory display.
Great English monarchs since Henry VIII were, for some strange reasons, females. Queen Elizabeth I began Britain’s “glory” through successful piracy and cunning. Queen Victoria enjoyed the harvest during Britain’s century of supreme global Empire — she had an easy-peesy, so to speak. Queen Elizabeth II have not had it so easy.
But I think Queen Elizabeth II is also one of the great monarchs. Having far less fortunate circumstances than her predecessor queens, she had to reign over Britain’s decades of definitive decline and often humiliations at the hands of the new boss of the world. Being monarch may appear to be ceremonial in Britain, but QE2 can grasp the socio-political significance of symbolism in the English psyche. As the British underwent a deep self-examination of her decade-plus of poodling along with America during the Tony Blair/Gordon Brown administrations, there arose recently a strong new consensus that Britain shall adjust her sails and catch new winds. This does not mean Britain is any less of an ally of America, but that she will navigate with more initiatives in order to better chart the future course of Britannia in the new world order, in coordination with traditional allies. Britain will be a player, not merely a poodle. And the Queen has made sure that, as a unique person, she endorses it.