Why tiny old Britain still has clout

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 December, 2013, 4:30am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 December, 2013, 1:11pm

State visits are scripted to set the stage for reciprocal warm rhetoric and analogies. Hence, Premier Li Keqiang said after meeting visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron that China and the UK had become "indispensable partners" in a relationship comparable to a high-speed train that can "constantly increase its speed". Cameron responded in kind, pledging British support for China to "realise its dream".

But sometimes commentary from a well-connected source on the sidelines can put a different complexion on the situation. For example, the Global Times, a newspaper under party mouthpiece the People's Daily, made it clear Beijing had not forgotten its outrage when Cameron met the Dalai Lama last year, saying China would not fall for Cameron's "sincerity" and London needed to be made to pay the price for intruding into China's interests. But that was not what made the Global Times commentary the most commented-on report carried by SCMP online. It was the paper's dismissal of the UK as "just an old European country" that is only a destination for Chinese to study and travel.

Cameron did not provoke this response; he steered clear of sensitive issues like human rights and political reform. And the Dalai Lama is obviously off Britain's A-list of dignitaries. Indeed, Cameron's visit marked the full reconciliation of Sino-British ties, with agreements to co-operate in high-speed railways and nuclear energy, and on investment, finance, legal affairs, culture and health care co-operation. This reflects China's broader global interests. Britain may be old and a small power, but it projects soft power above its weight through a far-flung colonial legacy of culture, language and values. It may have an ambivalent relationship with Europe but it remains a pre-eminent financial centre.

It is not to facilitate tourism and study alone that China has strengthened its ties with Britain. It is to foster closer understanding with a fellow permanent member of the UN Security Council that bridges Europe and the US.