Some belated posting of which I have a bit to do, this one for the Telegraph about the furore around the Hinkey Power Plant deal and China-UK relations. A difficult topic which is still in a very complex phase. Been trying to finish some very delayed writing projects that is keeping me busy and has some angry editors after me. Apologies to them. A spate of China related material which reflects something there is going to be an increasing amount of over the next period.
4 August 2016 • 1:34pm
Last week’s announcement delaying the decision on the Hinkley C nuclear power plant project has turned into a running commentary on the changing nature of the UK’s relationship with China. While Downing Street has been at pains to highlight that the decision is not linked to Beijing, much has been read into statements through the public news agency Xinhua that seem to foreshadow a veiled warning about the UK’s “golden age” with China being under threat. These proclamations need to be tempered by reality, however, and a realization that China is a pragmatic actor which will continue to seek the best deal it is able to achieve rather than pursuing an entirely quixotic foreign trade and investment agenda.
This is not say that China is not prone to publicly punish countries that have displeased it. Norway has faced a barrage of mostly symbolic sanctions since in 2011 the Nobel Prize Committee gave an award to incarcerated dissident Liu Xiaobo. In the wake of David Cameron’s meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2012, the UK faced a similar slap-down with diplomats’ lives in Beijing made more difficult and the Prime Minister having a number of visits postponed. In 2010, a pair of German researchers undertook a study using UN data from 1991 to 2008 on the “Dalai Lama effect”, whereby they identified an 8.1 per cent drop in exports to China in the two years after a nation’s leader met with the Dalai Lama.
Yet these numbers do not appear to tell the whole tale. During the period of Norwegian “punishment” (which according to some accounts continues today), the majority government owned oil company Statoil was still able to explore shale gas projects in China, and opened a research center in Beijing. In the UK’s case, it is inconclusive whether there was a definitive drop in trade figures during this period, though it is noticeable that in the immediate week after the fateful meeting between the Prime Minister and the Dalai Lama, a deal worth £50 million was signed between the UK and China to export pig offal and trotters for consumption in China.
Some apparent attempts by China to impose economic punishments on countries that have displeased them have backfired. In 2010, there was a spat between China and Japan over a fishing boat captain whose ship crashed into Japanese vessels in disputed waters; China subsequently moved to make the export of rare earth minerals more expensive. It is a matter of speculation whether the point here was to support domestic industry over outsiders or whether this was specifically targeted at Japan, whose high tech industry relies heavily on rare earths which at the time were 97% controlled by China (or some combination of the two). Whatever the case, the result was that other rare earth sources became economically viable, destroying China’s previous market monopoly.
China is in fact a pragmatic actor in international affairs. When its companies have faced pushback due to domestic concerns, often they have continued forwards in other ways. China has quite rigid domestic restrictions about what industries outsiders can invest into, so finds it hard to overtly attack others for doing the same thing. Often the rhetoric does not match the action, and the new government in Downing Street would do well to understand this distinction and calibrate its response appropriately. The decision over a nuclear power plants is an important one with substantial national ramifications for years to come, and it makes sense the new government would want to take time to ensure they are happy with the deal. Going forwards, however, it is important to ensure that a productive relationship is maintained with Beijing, a power that is only going to grow in significance as time goes on.
In order to ensure a smooth engagement with China and Asia more broadly, a number of steps should be taken: first, the UK should be consistent and long-term. Wild oscillations in policy and approach are not appreciated by Beijing (or any other government). We should seek a relationship of working together as partners with China while setting parameters. Concerns over human rights should be raised – as they are already – and pushing back on China’s aggressive cyber activities should continue. As the United States has shown in its relationship with China, these issues can be raised whilst maintaining a productive overall relationship.
Second, it is important to realize why China likes to invest in the UK. As an open market, the UK is an attractive option for Chinese businessmen looking for opportunities overseas. According to figures published by the Mercator Institute for China Studies and the Rhodium Group, between 2000 and 2014 the UK attracted more FDI from China than any other European country. While the status of the UK market’s relationship with the EU is uncertain longer term, for the time being the UK will remain a major financial hub and discussions and deals continue. Reflecting this, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) met earlier this week to discuss how financial products can work between both jurisdictions.
Third, the UK should seek to engage with China in third markets like Pakistan, Central Asia or parts of Africa where the UK has strong historical economic and political interests and China is increasing its presence. In some countries in this category, Britain and China are competitors, but in others, there is an element of complementarity. Exploring these opportunities will help British business going global, as well as improving the quality and effectiveness of Chinese investments in parts of the developing world.
Fourth, the UK should raise its game and attention to East Asian security issues like the disputes in the South and East China Seas, or the ongoing difficulties with North Korea. Currently, Britain is seen as a part-time player, second fiddle to the US in this sphere. Establishing a distinct and comprehensive understanding of these questions, the relevant relationships, as well as expressing informed views about regional problems and backing them with diplomatic heft would go a long way towards balancing the UK’s approach to the region.
Handled badly, Britain’s relationship with China could suffer in the wake of the delay to the Hinkley Point deal. However, if care is paid to engaging China in ways that are of interest to Beijing and that advance British interests, it is possible to find a way forwards in which the UK can express its concerns while continuing to attract Chinese investment and trade. Beijing is seeking partners as much as the UK is, and in the current state of global uncertainty it would seem unwise to cut off relations with another G7 power. The trick will be to establish the contours of the relationship and make sure that both sides are telegraphing each other’s intent with clarity and with a view to the long-term.