In this paper I examine British policy towards the Yuan Shikai government in China between 1912 and 1914 through a consideration of the role of Britain's 'men on the spot' in China (i.e. British diplomats and bankers resident there). In doing so, I synthesize two bodies of literature that rarely interact: British imperial history and work by China historians. Three main elements shaped British policy in China: first, British policy-makers were determined to support Yuan Shikai's consolidation of power in China; second, in the making of its China policy, the Foreign Office relied heavily on Britain's men on the spot; and, finally, these men were anxious about the vulnerability of the Yuan Shikai government and were therefore manipulated to a certain extent by Chinese politicians. I suggest that British policy-makers were reacting to, rather than controlling, Chinese politics and that in this period collaboration with British imperialism was a rational choice for the Yuan Shikai government.