British Business Titans Set to Breathe New Life into China-UK Trade!

The China International Fair for Trade in Services (CIFTIS) will witness the return of the largest-ever British business delegation after a four-year break. Consisting of 60 British companies and institutions, this delegation’s presence is highly significant. The British Embassy in Beijing has announced that more than 70 events are scheduled during this exhibition to promote dialogue and cooperation between China and the United Kingdom. Therefore, this article explores important aspects such as the progress of trade agreement negotiations between the two countries, their respective protectionist policies, and how China’s trade relations fit into the global landscape.

The most extensive British trade delegation to China

The leading figure for this substantial British delegation heading to China, the most extensive one in the past four years, will be a Department for Business and Trade representative. Tom Duke, the head of the Department for Business and Trade in China, expressed, “As China’s development progresses, there is a growing appreciation for the services in which the United Kingdom excels. In financial services, including pensions and insurance, or healthcare and environmental services that enhance the quality of life, we recognize the significant potential for collaboration between the U.K. and China in business endeavours.”


The extent of China-UK trade relations

According to the British Office of National Statistics (ONS), in 2022, British services exported to China increased by 7.2% year-on-year and reached 670 million pounds, equivalent to 845 million dollars. The import of British services from China has also reached 800 million pounds, an increase of 34.6%. From 1997 to 2020, UK-China service trade grew at an average annual rate of 12.2%. Experts believe the conditions for maintaining normal bilateral relations must be improved.


The U.K. is looking for new business partners.

Following its exit from the European Union, a process known as Brexit, the United Kingdom actively seeks new global business partners. At the same time, London maintains strong security ties with Washington but is also drawn to Beijing due to China’s status as the world’s second-largest economy and expansive consumer market. U.K. Foreign Secretary James Cleverly recently visited Beijing, marking the highest-ranking British official to do so in the past five years. During his visit, he engaged in discussions with top Chinese officials. This meeting aligns with Beijing’s desire for improved relations with the U.K., contingent upon mutual respect between the two nations. Conversely, London is keen on sustaining open lines of communication, particularly at the leadership level, between the two countries.


Opposition of some conservatives to Rishi Sunak’s policies

“Dialogue and cooperation serve as the central principles and guiding ethos of China’s approach towards the U.K.,” stated Cleverly. These words come to the forefront, even as some conservative lawmakers perceive this visit as an indicator of British vulnerability. Wang Yi, China’s Foreign Minister, warmly welcomed Cleverly during his visit to Beijing, emphasizing the imperative for both nations to advance their collaboration, particularly in bolstering global economic growth. He underscored, “I am confident that as long as both parties adhere to the principles of mutual respect, equitable treatment, objective evaluation of each other’s development, and the cultivation of mutual understanding and trust, Sino-British relations can overcome any unnecessary interferences and hurdles.”


The possibility of the Chinese President meeting with the U.K. Prime Minister

U.K. Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said on the eve of his trip to Beijing: “No significant global problem – from climate change to pandemic prevention, from economic instability to nuclear proliferation – can be solved without China.” Cleverly, who will be the first U.K. foreign secretary to visit China in five years, said: “It is important that countries like ours meet and speak face to face on regular occasions to enhance understanding, to avoid misunderstanding and to address the challenges and differences of opinion that all countries have in bilateral relations.” Although Cleverly says that the schedule of British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s meeting at next month’s G20 meeting in India is not yet known, there is a possibility of a meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and the British Prime Minister on the sidelines.


Rishi Sunak seeks to persuade public opinion in foreign policy.

The issue in China-UK relations might stem from certain stances and biases within the U.K., potentially leading to a Cold War mentality or prejudice against China. Conversely, the British government in London is concerned that if their political relations with China deteriorate, it could negatively impact the U.K. economy. Therefore, maintaining political ties with China is seen as essential. Moreover, with the British elections scheduled for January 24, 2025, the Sunak administration must articulate its policies to project an image of a rational and responsible government in the eyes of the public as the election date approaches.


Improving China-UK trade relations 

The planned visit of the U.K. Foreign Secretary may be related to the recent visit of the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other U.S. requests to visit China. In any case, Cleverly’s trip will positively affect the improvement of China-UK relations. Li Guanjie, another Chinese researcher from Shanghai University’s International Studies, also pointed out: “Although the British government, including Cleverly, is unclear about the potential outcomes of engaging with China, such a visit is the foundation for the resumption of China-UK relations. Without contact, how can bilateral ties return to normal?”


U.S. political pressure on European countries

This journey could mark the initial steps toward reconstructing relations, but we have yet to witness any tangible measures being taken. Political and diplomatic connections between the United Kingdom and China remain strained. One potential factor contributing to this recent chill in relations between China and the U.K. is the pressure exerted by the United States on European nations, including the U.K., to create distance between Beijing and Europe.

However, Europeans know China’s undeniable role and position in the emerging global order and the world economy. Due to American pressure and insistence, they are steadfast in their commitment not to forsake profitable relations with China.


Changing positions of the U.K. towards China

U.K.’s position towards China has changed intermittently and significantly in recent years. In addition to being influenced by America, this issue is also related to the internal turmoil in the U.K. During the last seven years, this country has changed five prime ministers. The not-so-agile and healthy economy of the U.K. after Brexit and the situation that worsened with the coronavirus epidemic, along with the war in Ukraine and the condition of the world economy, are significant issues. U.K. Prime Minister accused China of authoritarianism and announced that the golden age of relations with Beijing is over.


It takes time to rebuild China-UK relations.

James Cleverly elucidated the policy of Rishi Sunak’s government concerning China. He advocated for a middle-ground approach to China-UK trade relations despite heightened tensions. The U.K. Foreign Secretary deemed interaction with China imperative, contending that failing to do so would impede our responsibility to uphold and influence the international order. These statements indicate that the U.K. has shifted from its previous positions and actively seeks to mend relations with China.

Nonetheless, the primary challenge for the London government’s decision lies in garnering domestic public support, which must be rebuilt due to past policy missteps in recent years.

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