Xi Jinping's UK state visit

Global vision: UK-China relations could enter an era of unprecedented cooperation

Niv Horesh sees an opportunity for Sino-UK ties to hit new highs, benefiting more than just the economy

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 October, 2015, 5:48pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 November, 2016, 12:48pm

Under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese presence on the world stage and China's significance to sustaining global economic growth are no longer understated. Many more Western analysts now understand that China's economic rise is here to stay, even if, like Japan and Korea previously, the Chinese manufacturing powerhouse cannot grow at a double-digit rate forever.

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The "new normal" of economic slowdown in China this year will not erode leaders' determination to move the country up the value chain technologically and institutionally, combat pollution and corruption domestically, and re-engage with Europe on new terms.

Xi met US President Barack Obama last month without any inferiority complex on display, and first lady Peng Liyuan impressed many with a remarkably polished speech at the UN delivered in fluent English. Xi is in Britain this week for a state visit that is very important for both countries, one that can help bring about unprecedented strategic closeness between these two historically improbable partners.

China and Britain can learn a lot from each other's experience: the pitfalls of military overstretch and, more recently, the privatisation of national assets are cases in point

By and large, the British government seems to understand that if the Trans-Pacific Partnership is ratified, the US is likely to divert its attention from Europe and the Middle East to the Pacific Rim very quickly. This will have grave economic and security implications for Europe. It means at the very least that securing Chinese markets and investment is likely to become more important for the British economy over the next few years, especially in view of Russia's confrontational posture under President Vladimir Putin.

To be sure, Chinese claims to a huge swathe of the South China Sea are unnerving Western and Southeast Asian observers, yet there's a difference between dredging small islets in the middle of the ocean and occupying territories the size of Crimea overnight. Although more discordantly assertive nowadays, China did nevertheless tacitly join the Western rebuke of Russia by abstaining from voting on a UN Security Council draft resolution that would have condemned the referendum in Crimea as illegal.

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The previous decade of the so-called comprehensive strategic partnership between China and Britain was, at times, overshadowed by historical baggage, for example an excessive focus on Hong Kong. But there is so much more nowadays to UK-China relations than just Hong Kong.

Although renminbi internationalisation has slowed over the past few months, the City of London can potentially play a critical role in that process in the near future. If it doesn't, Frankfurt will.

Should all of this worry the average Briton? Three dimensions spring to mind: jobs, human rights and respect for each other's sovereignty.

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In the first instance, Xi's visit can potentially pave the way for additional Chinese investment in the north of England where the unemployment rate is higher. Nottingham is a good example of what closer engagement with China can yield: while many of the city's factories have relocated to Asia, it is nowadays students from China who help in no small measure to revive local businesses and the property market here.

What the British government should therefore do in the first instance is recognise that tertiary education delivered in the English language, and the sector's international reputation for research excellence more broadly, is one of Britain's key remaining assets.

Regrettably, those factories that have moved east will not be coming back any time soon. Rather than continue debilitating the university sector with endless quality-assessment exercises and egregious funding cuts, the government should show strategic vision and partner both Chinese and European stakeholders to offer citizens of the world affordable quality alternative to US elite universities.

When it comes to human rights, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne was recently portrayed as a typically unscrupulous politician pandering to Chinese ethnocentrism so as to secure the success of Xi's visit. This is because Osborne had just visited the region of Xinjiang without openly questioning the treatment of the Uygur Muslim majority at the hands of the Han-dominated authorities there. Critics therefore complained that Britain's China policy has been wrested away from Foreign Office wonks, and is now formulated by the Treasury.

The broader context of the visit could indeed have been better communicated by Osborne's entourage. There is in fact more to the story: increasingly, China is becoming a stakeholder in the fight against Islamic State, so stability in Xinjiang is arguably in Britain's best interest, too. It is no accident that Islamic State named China an enemy, having reportedly recruited several hundred Xinjiang Uygurs into its ranks. In this light, publicly lecturing Chinese leaders about Xinjiang makes as much sense as Chinese leaders publicly denouncing David Cameron for his reluctance to admit more Syrian refugees into the UK. It has to be recognised, moreover, that sometimes not even the best practice of human rights can prevent home-grown youth radicalisation.

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Finally, when it comes to sovereignty and respect for one another's choices, China's foreign-policy-makers may have badly miscalculated when pitching to British and other Western audiences the notion of setting up a "community of common destiny". There is simply too much concern around the world about what the Chinese notion of "common destiny" actually conveys in this age of rampant neoliberal globalisation.

Quite apart from its eerie resemblance to the Japanese claim of ushering in "co-prosperity" during the second world war, the notion of "common destiny" seems inconsistent with China's adherence to the principle of non-interference in other countries' choices. Indeed, a "community of common destiny" might sound like the kind of vacuous sloganeering that Chinese citizens' ears can tolerate on a daily basis but a Western audience will rally against.

Britain is a former colonial power that still plays a leading role within the European Union, and one that still wields much soft power beyond Europe. China is an economic superpower but one that suffers from a soft-power deficit, particularly in the US. Since the first opium war (1839-42), the two countries have clashed bitterly and repeatedly over matters to do with sovereignty infringement and differing political systems.

Although they were in opposite camps during the cold war, China and Britain did in fact collaborate against common enemies during the first and second world wars. So for China and Britain to now move beyond this chequered record, and to forge an economic partnership is a positive development.

But real closeness also requires a narrative of respect for one another's distinct system of governance and sovereignty. In that sense, China and Britain can learn a lot from each other's experience: the pitfalls of military overstretch and, more recently, the privatisation of national assets are cases in point. Other countries would do well to heed these historical lessons, too.

Niv Horesh is professor of the modern history of China and director of the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham