21 May 2013
Dr Tim Summers

Dr Tim Summers

Senior Consulting Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme (based in Hong Kong)


The UK-China relationship has seen better days. High level government exchanges have not been taking place in the way that was envisaged some years back when the two governments started to schedule regular bilateral summits at head of government level, ideally on an annual basis. While France and Germany have enjoyed high-level contact with the new Chinese leadership, the UK has been left out of the party, with only minimal contact so far.

The proximate cause is Chinese official irritation following the decision last year by the UK Prime Minister David Cameron, and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, to meet the Dalai Lama, the attempted diplomatic legerdemain of presenting this as a meeting with a religious leader notwithstanding. One can argue that bilateral relationships should not be held to ransom by any single issue, but given earlier precedents from France and Germany, the Chinese response should have been expected. The UK government needs to work positively to move beyond this spat.

Underlying this incident, however, are some more fundamental structural shifts in international politics. Whether we like it or not, China is becoming more powerful, with direct implications for the dynamics of bilateral relations. And as some of the commentary in China around Britain's obsessive debate about membership of the EU has shown, there is a perception in China that the UK continues to decline as a world power. UK policy makers need to work out how to deal with this. Shifts in power relations mean that the UK can no longer set the agenda in the way it might have been able to in the past.

Does a hiatus in high-level contact really matter?

There is an argument that attention should be placed elsewhere, and the UK government's commercial and diplomatic focus on a range of emerging markets is definitely welcome in ensuring neither China nor any other single country dominates the agenda.

As others have pointed out, too, trade and investment flows between the UK and China have continued to show healthy growth, as has interest in cultural and educational ties. Indeed, most trade is conducted between companies and individuals, not countries, and so is not directly dependent on the state of government-to-government ties. Chinese companies operate increasingly according to market drivers, so commercial prospects will remain strong as long as the economy provides opportunities.

This does not mean government has no role to play, however. Helping companies explore new markets, identifying opportunities, and supporting business in pursuing them are all important parts of government policy, particularly in a country like China where the government is active in the economy. At a working level these activities can continue even in times of diplomatic difference, but ultimately a good high-level relationship can only be beneficial.

The more important question is a wider one, about what sort of relationship is most desirable. Headlines about trade-offs between commercial interests and human rights miss the point. This is not only a false dichotomy, but reduces a multi-faceted relationship to two issues. There is so much more that the UK and Chinese governments and other stakeholders benefit from talking about, from climate change to reform of international institutions and the ongoing challenges of international politics, from Syria through the Middle East to Afghanistan and beyond. High-level government engagement is crucial to forging consensus or identifying differences on these issues, particularly at a time when China has just undergone a once-in-a-decade leadership transition.

What is required therefore is a comprehensive strategic relationship, of the sort envisaged previously, but which has fallen into disrepair over the last year. At the heart of this is dialogue. It needs compromise and respect on both sides, including over sensitive issues. It probably also needs clear 'champions' in each of the respective governments to ensure their bureaucracies are coordinated, and to argue the case when short-term political interests risk interfering with a relationship which will become only strategically more important as those structural shifts in international politics make their presence felt.