THE BLOG

After Xi's Visit, Where Next for the UK-China Relationship?

02/11/2015 16:48 GMT | Updated 30/10/2016 09:12 GMT

The red carpet has been rolled away, the royal carriage has been put back in the garage, and the British press have moved on. Now that Xi Jinping's state visit - the first by a Chinese Premier for 10 years is over, it's a good time to take stock and ask how the Sino-UK relationship should now develop.

At the Young Fabians, this is a question we've been looking at closely since launching our China Programme in April 2014. We published 'China-Ready', a collection of essays suggesting how the relationship could be strengthened in February 2015, and earlier this month - ahead of Xi's visit - sent a delegation to Beijing for a week of dialogue with students and young people, academics, businesses, UK organisations based in China, and government and CPC officials.

Speaking at a Young Fabians event in Parliament this week, the Labour MP Liam Byrne, perhaps the biggest advocate in parliament for stronger UK-China relations, argued that the reception to Xi's visit showed that the case for closer ties had been largely made in Westminster, but had yet to be made to either the British public at large, or to the British media.

The relationship with China as directed by David Cameron and George Osbourne has primarily been about trade and investment. Looking at just this dimension in isolation, the visit can be judged to have been a success, with around £40 billion worth of deals concluded the course of the week.

But this cannot be the totality of our approach to China. In China Ready, we argued that that UK-China relationship must be more than just transactional. This means social and cultural exchange - a dimension that Byrne himself admits he overlooked when first engaging with China a decade ago. It also means developing a robust political relationship. The UK must develop "relationships of trust" - a constant refrain from everyone we met with in Beijing - from which it can tackle shared challenges and effectively communicate its concerns on issues such cyber-espionage, steel-dumping, human rights, Tibet and Hong Kong.

The UK also needs to do more to promote people-to-people exchange. We will need a greater number of strong people-to-people relationships, at all levels, if we are to have any chance of having meaningful dialogue, influence or even insight. Lots of progress has been made in this area in recent years - the British Council estimates that 6,000 British students spent time in China this year, a 50% increase on the year before. But there is some way to go if the next generation of British young people are going to be appropriately prepared to live in the globalised world around them.

We need to get to a point where spending time working and studying an emerging economy is as common as spending time in France, Germany or one of our other continental neighbours. We should look at whether we might learn something on this from countries like New Zealand. As one British-Kiwi dual national put it to me earlier this year: "it's not unusual for young people to work, study, or go on an exchange to Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong - many New Zealanders aged 21 to 50 will be familiar with one if not more of these places in a way that isn't true in the UK."

Finally, it is difficult to fully consider the UK-China relationship without considering the UK-EU relationship. Many of the Chinese organisations our delegation met in Beijing raised the prospect of a British exit from the EU. From my perspective, it is quite simple - the UK will not be able to have the influence it needs when negotiating with countries like China without being part of the European Union. Indeed, we should actually be looking to do more to leverage our position in Europe to achieve foreign policy and trade policy objectives. We have far more hope of circumventing protectionism and securing fair and reciprocal access to Chinese markets for British firms when we speak with one voice as a European bloc, rather than as a single nation. From a Chinese perspective, Brexit would also roll-back some of the benefits of working with Britain as a jumping off point into the EU - we would be ceding competitive advantage back to other EU member nations such as France and Germany.

All of these points could be said to apply not just to China but to a plethora of other countries around the world. As the world continues to change around us, the UK needs to position itself for prosperity in the 21st century. We need to engage and try to shape and secure our own future - the alternative is simply decline.

Joel Mullan is former Young Fabians International Officer. He is co-editor (with Adam Tyndall) of 'China-Ready: Equipping Britain for an Asian Future'.