Written by Rod Wye.

As some of the dust settles after the State visit, it is worth considering what the future holds for Britain’s relationship with China. In the immediate short term, the pay off for the UK seems to have been considerable – a new era of “golden” relations with China and mouth watering sums in new commitments for trade and investment. It is a considerable achievement to have achieved these practical results and to have moved political relations from the suspension of all high level exchanges in 2012 to the present love in.

For some the answer to how this was achieved is simple. The British government has sold out its principles and even mortgaged its future in return for the glittering prizes of Chinese investment. But even for Britain that is perhaps too simplistic a view. Nor can one be too sanguine that the political golden era will last that long. This is the third Chinese State visit in just over 15 years. Each one came with the expectation that a more positive turn for the better had been taken in the relationship, but the euphoria had a limited shelf life. Even the stunning figures may turn out to be rather less than they seem. Officials in London, and to an extent in China, will have worked hard to achieve a substantial portfolio of “deliverables”  for the visit, and there is likely to be many a slip before the promises are realised.

Several  familiar themes recurred during the visit. We have been treated to yet another chapter in the unedifying story of European leaders competing with each other to be China’s number one partner in Europe. It serves China well to encourage this, at little cost to itself. The Europeans can usually be relied on to be relatively careless of the wider political implications of their rush to please the Chinese. China can afford to pick and choose and avoid the dangers of European solidarity which alone might impinge seriously on China’s interests. President Xi indicated China’s desire to see Britain remain in the European Union, not so much for a strong Europe.

For China this was also a useful proving ground in trying out new concepts. The bilateral strategic partnership has now been raised to the level of a global strategic partnership. It will probably not be long before we see other countries seeking to add this new formulation into the description of their own bilateral relationships. On the face of it, it seems to be a harmless rhetorical addition, albeit one which moves the country concerned somewhat up the league table of China’s favoured partners. But it is also signals another small step into buying into China’s ill defined but nonetheless tangible alternative sense of how the world should be organised. One of the less public themes of the visit from a Chinese perspective was the desire to draw the UK at various levels into discussions of global governance. This was reflected in the Joint communique which spoke of working towards an international financial system of fairness, equity, inclusivity and coherence.

More serious was the way in which the UK government appeared to be prepared to accept a Chinese defined agenda for the visit. The implicit message seemed to be you can get fine words and practical demonstrations of China’s favour provided you leave the difficult items on the political agenda to one side. So there was no mention of Tibet (hardly surprising in view of recent history) but also little reference to Hong Kong, just a few months after the Chinese had clearly warned the UK off too close a political engagement there by refusing visas for the all Party Parliamentary group and ensuring that the British Foreign Office Minister visiting Hong Kong was not received by the Chief Executive. It may have been that such issues proved too contentious for inclusion in the Joint Communique, but Chancellor Merkel has since shown that it is possible to raise in public awkward issues (in her case the South China Sea) even while scooping in substantial trade and investment deals.

Human rights and how to handle them within a wider relationship with China remain a perennial problem for Britain and other governments. These questions are always brought into sharp relief by such formal and symbolic occasions as high level visits.  There was the usual sorry tale of strong media criticism of the government for its failure to force change in China, while minimalist exchanges at the official level take place. All UK governments have somehow to integrate human rights into their policies on China, and none have managed this successfully.

The scale of Chinese investment in the UK is indeed something new and unprecedented. Each new Chinese investment continues to attract headlines.  Those areas in Britain likely to be the sites of major new Chinese investment are notably more enthusiastic about engagement with Britain than the metropolitan press. It is going to become more normal. This time round there were real concerns about security in the nuclear industry. There will be longer term problems in conflicts of management style and expectations. This is not something that is necessarily peculiar to China, although with China the state plays a significantly greater role than many other places.

Beyond the level of government to government exchanges, the new golden era offers exciting possibilities. The Chinese system in particular responds to signals from the top. Those seeking to develop practical exchanges with China have a real window of opportunity to develop partnerships with China at a time when much foreign engagement with China is being viewed with increasing suspicion and distaste by the authorities, ever suspicious of the poison of influences from outside (as seen in the proposed new laws to manage the activities of foreign NGOs).

President Xi has got much of what he presumably wanted. The British do pageantry as well if not better than anyone.  The sight of a Chinese President being received with full pomp and circumstance by the British monarchy, plays well at home and into the China Dream of China being seen as standing fully in the community of nations with the respect. The imperialist power of the 150 years of humiliation is now seen doing its utmost to show China’s rulers respect. There were some important new breakthroughs especially for China’s nuclear industry and strong UK political support for some of China’s aims such as the inclusion of the Chinese currency in the World Bank’s SDR basket of currencies.

It is easy to carp. It is very welcome to see British politicians taking China seriously. This is long overdue. But it is regrettable that the focus remains so resolutely fixed, at least in the public eye, on the economic dimensions of that relationship. Clearly the second largest economy in the world is an entity with which Britain needs to engage substantially. Chinese investment in the UK is something that is going to grow, and it is right that the government should encourage that. It is a part of the new normal of interaction with China that we are all going to have to get used to, and to find ways to manage to our mutual advantage. But it is important also to be mindful of geopolitical world in which all this is taking place. Britain seems to have some explaining and reassuring to do to its friends and allies.

Rod Wye is a member of the CPI Advisory Board. He has more than 30 years’ experience working as a government analyst on China and East Asia for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He retired as head of research on Asia at the FCO in 2010. He served twice as a first secretary in the British Embassy in Beijing in the 1980s and the 1990s where he was responsible for reporting on Chinese domestic affairs. He was also deputy head of the FCO China Hong Kong department from 1999 to 2002. Image credit: CC by Number 10/Flickr

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