7 September 2023

A row – long simmering – has blown up over China’s plans to build a much larger embassy in London on the site of the old Royal Mint Court near Tower Bridge.

For a long time, China had felt the need for more space for its embassy in London than that provided by its existing diplomatic premises in Portland Place, near Regent’s Park. As a result, having been given the go-ahead by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (as required by Section 1 of the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987) following negotiations with foreign secretary Boris Johnson’s strategist and fixer Sir Edward Lister, in May 2018 China paid £255m for the Royal Mint Court site on which to erect its new embassy. Plans for it were subsequently drawn up by award-winning British architect David Chipperfield and were approved by officials in Tower Hamlets’ own planning department.  At 65,000-square metres, the new embassy would be China’s biggest in Europe, almost double the size of its mission in Washington and even bigger than the new US embassy in London. This would underline the so-called ‘golden era’ in UK-China relations, or just be a sign of the supposed ‘new world order’.

It was not long, however, before the project ran into stiff local opposition. Among numerous objections were fears of damage to a site of great historical importance, traffic congestion, the possibility of protests outside the embassy, and further strain on local police resources. The violent behaviour of the Chinese consul towards a peaceful protester outside his premises in Manchester in October 2022 was also poor advance publicity; who would want a fortress of ‘wolf warrior’ diplomats for neighbours? And in view of China’s reputation for mistreating its Uyghur people, local Muslims – who are numerous and politically influential in the borough – had no reason to look kindly on the idea; it was even proposed that as a demonstration of local sentiment streets in the vicinity should be re-named ‘Tiananmen Square’, ‘Uyghur Court’, ‘Hong Kong Road’ and ‘Tibet Hill’. This was a wind-up that could hardly be bettered and the proposal fell away. Nevertheless, in February 2023 the Chinese embassy plan was unanimously rejected by Tower Hamlets’ borough council, and London mayor Sadiq Khan refused to overrule its decision.

Recognising that a formal appeal would be useless and, in consequence, neglecting the six-month deadline for this procedure to start, the Chinese government has publicly urged the British government to weigh in on its behalf and over-rule the local objectors. Britain, it argues, has an ‘international obligation to facilitate and support the building of premises of diplomatic missions.’ Unfortunately, Article 21(1) of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961), to which this is an obvious reference, is not exactly watertight. It states that:

The receiving State shall either facilitate the acquisition on its territory, in accordance with its laws, by the sending State of premises necessary for its mission or assist the latter in obtaining accommodation in some other way.

And, as Eileen Denza says in her chapter on this article in the 4th edition of her Diplomatic Law (Oxford UP, 2016), the word ‘facilitate’ was never defined by the ILC, and the receiving state’s duty is ‘not one of result’; that is, if I understand this legalese correctly, the receiving state will not be in breach of the Convention if, despite its best efforts, difficulties of one sort or another make it impossible to deliver exactly what the sending state demands. She goes on to say that ‘Where states have sought unusual assistance regarding the acquisition or construction of embassy premises, the modern practice has been  to conclude special international agreements rather than rely on the somewhat weak provisions of Article 21 of the Vienna Convention’ (p. 108, emphasis added).

Had a special agreement on the Royal Mint project been concluded in May 2018, it would presumably have been easier – with some hefty sweeteners  to the Tower Hamlets borough council thrown in – to get the new embassy launched. But the Chinese probably thought that London needed its investment so badly, and would also require their own approval for Britain’s plans to rebuild its own embassy in Beijing, that the Conservative government would help it out, come what may. As for Boris Johnson, a foreign secretary as useless as him could hardly have been expected to have the foresight to anticipate that in less than a year the ‘golden era’ in UK-China relations might be unravelling over Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Huawei, among other things. Whether any progress was made on the Chinese Embassy issue during foreign secretary James Cleverly’s short visit to Beijing at the end of August 2023 is unclear, and frankly unlikely. The business and architectural press is already writing off China’s Royal Mint project.