In the world of diplomacy, like in politics, every decision is taken for a reason. Pragmatism meets strategy, often choreographed in televised fiction as a chess match, with subtlety and manoeuvre at every stage.
From an external perspective, we piece together information from a snippet here, a clue there, and often the greater part of the truth is inferred from what is missing rather than what is there.
Caroline Wilson is undoubtedly a talented diplomat. She is an internationalist at heart, reportedly proficient in Mandarin (having studied briefly at Beijing Normal University) as well as fluent in various European languages. It is easy to see why, after serving as Consul General to Hong Kong and Macao, she returned to a position as Europe Director at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Caroline Wilson’s approach towards the European Union is a warm one, fitting well with the previous British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit strategy. Her personal opinions on Brexit are, as would be expected of a senior diplomat, kept closely guarded. Yet, I get a recurring sense that her abilities were more suited to working with that government than Boris Johnson’s.
The decision to appoint her as Ambassador to China may reflect this reality: being highly-respected within the Foreign Office, Caroline Wilson’s name would undoubtedly have been on any shortlist.
Yet there is also a broader political picture: in 2016, towards the end of her tenure as Consul General to Hong Kong, she made one of the strongest statements of her career to date: “Hong Kong’s place is firmly within the People’s Republic of China under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ framework, which has, on the whole, worked incredibly well in the 20 years since the handover.”
The British government’s attitude towards Hong Kong remains one of cautious vigilance. For all prime minister Boris Johnson’s talk of changing the UK’s immigration rules over the new national security law, such an action would be politically problematic.
In this sense, the appointment of Caroline Wilson should be seen as a continuation of that “wait and see” approach.
She has a clear desire to engage with the Chinese government, has publicly praised the Belt & Road Initiative and the Chinese approach to business
British culture has a strange relationship with language: given that English is spoken fluently in so many nations around the world, young people in the United Kingdom are rarely sure which foreign languages to study in school.
Whereas English is commonly taught in schools around the world, learning modern foreign languages has become almost an afterthought in the UK’s education system.
For that reason, the UK often has unusual respect for its officials who are fluent in other languages. To have an Ambassador who is able to speak Mandarin is, ironically, of greater interest to the UK government than to the Chinese government.
In a 2016 speech in Hong Kong for the Queen’s Birthday Party (itself a curious manifestation of “One Country, Two Systems”), Caroline Wilson used the language of Shakespeare throughout before proposing a toast to the People’s Republic of China and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
If anything encapsulates the New Ambassador, who will take up her post in September, it is that speech. She is both British and internationalist at the same time, keen to calm down rather than inflame tensions everywhere.
In that speech, Caroline Wilson quoted the Shakespeare play “As You Like It”. A famous line in that play is “All the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and entrances”.
Decisions are made for many reasons, with the art of diplomacy being about taking on the right role when the curtain rises. I cannot say whether Caroline Wilson will make a good Ambassador, but she knows how to play her part.