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China-UK relations: Looking into the future

Updated:2022-03-29 11:21:50   China Daily


The 13th of March marked the 50th anniversary of ambassadorial diplomatic relations between China and the UK. As the tenth Chinese ambassador to the United Kingdom, I wish to share some personal perspectives on the relationship.

The UK recognized the People's Republic of China in 1950-one year after its founding-way ahead of most other Western countries. In 1972, when the international landscape was undergoing dramatic changes, China and the UK established full diplomatic ties which opened the path for closer cooperation in economic, trade, cultural and many other fields. The successful handover of Hong Kong in 1997 paved the way for smooth progress of the relationship in the years to come.

Both sides should appreciate generations of efforts

I served as the Chinese ambassador in London between 2007 and 2010 and witnessed how the relationship advanced rapidly. Though there were some tough moments for me addressing difficulties and frictions in the relationship, I generally had a good impression of the country and a pleasant experience during my three-year tenure in the UK. Before leaving, at my farewell reception at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park Hotel in January 2010, I was already missing Britain.

In the years since, I have followed closely our relationship and it was always delightful to see new progress and achievement in exchanges and cooperation. However, I have also noticed some setbacks along the journey. Beijing would not accept some of London's criticisms and concerns over alleged human rights issues which it saw as unfair. And normal progress of bilateral ties was inevitably affected when the differences became the focus in the relationship.

A closer look at the specific issues reveals that they are basically about China's domestic politics and policies rather than anything impairing the interests of the British people. The divergent opinions reflected, to some extent, the divergent values and worldviews of the Chinese and the British people which were rooted in their different history and political culture. Differences need to be dealt with through communication and exchange rather than being allowed to undermine the foundation and bonds of the bilateral ties.

It took both sides generations of strong and steady efforts to bring the China-UK relationship where it is today. In 1972, bilateral trade barely reached $300 million; while in 2021, it topped $110 billion, making China the UK's largest trading partner in Asia. The cumulative two-way investment reached almost $50 billion; over 500 Chinese businesses have created more than 80,000 jobs in the UK. London is now the world's biggest offshore RMB clearing center. The success of our financial cooperation, such as the Shanghai-London Stock Connect and the currency swap program, speaks for itself. New energy cooperation provides another new growth driver for China-UK relations. Green cooperation is flourishing in battery capacity, offshore wind power, electric vehicles and so on. Most recently, China's nuclear reactor design Hualong One (HPR 1000) passed the UK's generic design assessment (GDA). The project, once built, will provide access to more reliable and clean energy for British communities.

People-to-people exchange and educational cooperation is another pillar in China-UK relations. I myself was a beneficiary. In 1985, I went to study in the UK on a Commonwealth Scholarship that I shared with another student. I arrived with several dozens of other Chinese students. Most of us chose disciplines on practical knowledge and skills. Some studied strawberry cultivation or livestock farming. Others learned computer science or mechanical engineering. Many of them joined China's reform and opening-up endeavor after they finished studies in the UK. Till this day, whenever I visit the fruit section in Chinese supermarkets, the delicious-looking strawberries remind me of my fellow students and our days in the UK.

In 2020, the UK overtook the United States to become the top destination for overseas Chinese students. A whopping 42 percent of the students who went abroad chose to study in the UK. Despite the impact of COVID-19 on the flow of overseas students, 130,000 UK student visas were issued to Chinese students in 2021, which amounted to one third of the total number of international students in the UK. We can expect even more robust China-UK people-to-people exchanges when COVID-19 eases.

Changing circumstances challenge the old world order

This brings me back to examine the difficulties in our relationship. It is only natural that countries perceive some issues differently. What matters is how to view and address them in an appropriate way. Countries can discuss or debate their differences, but not take them as a reason to interfere in other countries' internal affairs. Western countries have a habit of telling others what to do. One of the causes for such behavior, in addition to a sense of self-righteousness, is a fundamental lack of awareness of the new reality brought by modern-day economic globalization and the inability to adjust their way of thinking and conduct accordingly, yet it matters that these countries undertake such adjustments so that the world will keep moving forward.

Following the end of the Cold War, the United States began trying to globalize the US-dominated West-centric order from the bipolar era, which differs from the UN-centered international order despite their overlap. This US-led order has succeeded in generating economic globalization, moving capital and linking markets, production and other economic activities across the world-beyond the boundaries of the Western bloc. But it remains a highly exclusive process otherwise-dismissing non-Western values and political systems and putting first the security interests of the United States and its allies. Economic globalization has changed the world in profound ways, making possible the rise of China and other developing countries. In the meantime, the United States, which continues to claim predominance, has made a series of blunders such as the international financial crisis of 2007 and failures in Afghanistan and Iraq. These were signs that the US-led order had begun to lose appeal-a cause for growing anxiety in Washington over the US stature in the world.

In 2010, China became the world's second largest economy. Its 2021 GDP accounted for over 18 percent of the global total, up from 2.9 percent in 1972. China's progress fueled US fears about losing supremacy. The US response, instead of a healthy competition in the 21st-century globalized world, is to crack down and hold back China's growth, targeting China not only in trade and technology areas, but also highlighting political and ideological differences. Those differences had been there since half a century ago and did not hinder the progress of the Western countries' relations with China.

Now, when we face more common challenges and have wider consensus for global cooperation, why the old differences have reemerged and become intolerable? The answer, as I tend to believe, lies in a combination of factors-first, the inability of the US-led order to adapt to new realities; second, a lack of understanding and accommodation among the Western countries toward China and other emerging countries whose histories, cultures and levels of development are different from the West; and third-I would admit-the lagging consciousness and lack of sophistication when it comes to communicating to the world who we Chinese are, what we want and why we do things the way we do.

At the very moment, Europe and the Asia-Pacific are witnessing serious conflicts caused by clash of interests. The old order and way of thinking are being challenged by the changing circumstances and rising tensions around the world. The relationship between China and the UK must adapt and adjust to make sure that it will not be trapped by the conflict of interests or clash of philosophies, and be able to identify new opportunities for growth and cooperation.

Look into the future by learning from history

To this end, we need to learn from history and free ourselves from the old mindset. We need to respect and accommodate each other, address issues through dialogue and consultation, and expand cooperation no matter what may stand in the way. As Chinese President Xi Jinping underscored during his phone conversation with Prime Minister Boris Johnson last October, "To develop a sound China-UK relationship, trusting each other is the basis; getting perceptions right is the premise; and properly managing differences is the key."

A History of Europe, authored by Professor J.M. Roberts of Oxford University in 1996, is one of the few books on the subject that treats Russia as part of Europe. The book analyses why Eastern and Western Europe grew apart and the possibility and prospect of reintegration. However, 30 years after the end of the Cold War, Europe has been sadly hit again by military conflict, which is causing huge humanitarian consequences on the continent. The whole world is watching anxiously where this conflict may lead and calling eagerly for peace and proper solution.

Among the many causes of the crisis, there is also the traditional geopolitical mindsets of the parties involved, being determined to push their security borders as further away as possible and to expand their own values-based alliances at the expense of others. It is this type of tension that has repeatedly cost Europe the chance to come to unity. Failure to find a proper way out could drag the whole world back into the abyss of isolation and confrontation.

The early years of the 21st century saw a period of relative calm and cooperation among major countries. Economic globalization thrived, bringing valuable growth opportunities that benefited China, the UK and many other countries. Today, economic globalization is not only challenged by protectionism and isolationism, but also threatened by the possibility of being reversed due to vicious competition between major countries and regional conflict. The world is once again facing the choice between peace and war, and between integration and split. The UK, as an established industrial country constantly alert to shifting trends in the world, must also be thinking whether history and disaster are bound to repeat themselves and whether they can be averted.

The UK's vision for Global Britain conveys its desire to participate more actively in global affairs and play a role compatible with its international stature. I wonder how the UK would be managing its relations with China from such a global perspective?

China has come a long way in its development. This is an important aspect of the changing dynamics in our world. When I was Ambassador to the UK, I was often asked two questions: "What does China want from the world?" and "What can China offer to the world?" Now that I think about it, people in the UK apparently saw the shift in China's world stature coming even before we Chinese did. My answers to those questions at that time were: "China wants to see enduring peace and stability in the world; and China will offer to the world with its peaceful development." It has been over 10 years since, and the answers remain the same. Today's China is focused on national rejuvenation and common prosperity for its people. To achieve sustained development, China needs a world of lasting peace and, to that end, hopes to see a more inclusive and fair global system, adapted and reformed for the well-being of all in the world.

China and the UK are both permanent members of the UN Security Council. Both support and champion economic globalization. Both want their voices to be heard and interests ensured. As China-UK relations enter the next 50 years, we need to create positive dynamics between the two sides at the global level, because how we perceive each other and define our relations will also play a part in shaping global trends. We have a shared responsibility and obligation to resist the forces that try to send the world backward.

We live in a century of major challenges, which can only be met through the joint efforts of China, the UK and the rest of the global community, for what is at stake is the common welfare of humanity. China and the UK must work together on a full range of issues such as global financial stability, climate change, clean energy, nuclear nonproliferation, food security, counterterrorism and cybersecurity. I have no doubt that cooperation at the global level will in turn inspire efforts on the bilateral front. Both sides will stand to benefit.

Keywords:   China-UK ties