UK and China: A Partnership for Growth?

December 5, 2013

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British Prime Minister David Cameron has led the UK’s largest trade mission to China in December which has been heralded as an attempt to link Britain to the fast growing China market through both trade opportunities into China and in terms of Chinese investment into the UK.

David Cameron has taken a lead amongst world leaders in visiting China to try to develop a new relationship with country. According to the Prime Minister’s Office, the three day trip was designed to plant “the seeds of a long-term relationship which will benefit China, Britain and the world for generations to come.”

The trade visit was specifically focused on:

  • building a long-term relationship between Britain and China “based on mutual understanding and respect for mutual benefit”
  • partnership – “an open Britain is the ideal partner for an opening China”
  • tackling 21st century challenges, from sustainable urbanisation to educating the next generation to meeting the elderly’s healthcare needs

it is clear, however, that UK exports to China and inward investment into the UK was the PM’s clear objective both now and in the future. In order to achieve that objective he is willing to draw a line over past issues with China concerning human rights.

Cameron in China
Cameron met with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang and agreed to describe the UK and China’s new relationship as an “indispensible partnership”. Speaking to a lunch of UK and China-based business leaders, the Prime Minister even spoke a few words in Mandarin to demonstrate this new relationship which translated into, “in both sides’ interests”. In reality the UK needs Chinese inward investment and trade opportunities far more than China needs the UK. Agreement in principle has already been given to Chinese investment into the UK’s new nuclear programme and talks have taken place concerning further Chinese investment into other major UK infrastructure projects such as high speed rail.

Cameron has tried to use the visit to portray the UK as “the most open country in the Western world to Chinese investment.” However, to achieve this the Prime Minister has spent considerable political capital in pursuing this policy and has received criticism after his Office briefed that he would not see the Dalai Lama (a thorn in recent UK/Chinese relations) “in the foreseeable future.”

However, David Cameron did raise the issue of cyber security during his trip which has been an issue of great concern not only for the UK security forces but also for British business. Cameron told reporters that, “a proper cyber dialogue between countries is necessary and I have raised this with the Chinese leadership that we need to properly discuss these issues. It is an issue of mutual concern and one that we should be discussing.”

The UK’s political investment in China has only just begun. How far this will go and what results itb will bring remain to be seen. What is clear, however, is that the UK has tried to take a new positive and proactive stance with Chinese political and business leaders by saying that the UK is open for business to China.