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UK-China partnership is way forward

By JULIAN SHEA | China Daily Global | Updated: 2019-05-08 09:11

Government should follow example of business, says former senior advisor

Former senior British diplomatic advisor Charles Powell says the country needs to think of China as a "partner not an enemy" when accommodating its rising power and new prominence on the international stage, and that the government should follow the lead of business with a pro-active policy towards Asia as a whole.

In an informative and wide-ranging speech at St Mary's University in London, entitled: The New Leviathan: Managing China's Rise, Powell, a former private secretary to prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major, spoke of the challenges and opportunities presented by China's transformation over the last four decades, and how Britain should respond to them for the good of all involved.

"The favorite tagline of our politicians at the moment is 'Global Britain' but to date, it is a completely vapid concept with no-one attempting to define it, but relations with China and Asia will be the most obvious place to give it substance and meaning, especially in a post-Brexit world," he said.

"We need our government to get on with defining its strategy towards China ... British companies have given the lead in designating Asia as the future for business, government has been slower and inconsistent in defining a role."

The rise of China, Powell went on, "is more likely than anything else in the foreign policy universe to disrupt the status quo and to impact the lives and fortunes of those at university today. That makes it very important to understand China's past, how it looks at the world and how it sees its own destiny."

As a career civil servant and diplomat who spent years at the heart of government, and who was also president of the China Britain Business Council and vice-chairman of the advisory board to the Fudan University Business School, Powell has developed a great understanding of China, in contrast to his school days, when he said "China didn't feature much, if at all, in the history books 60 years ago ... it featured scandalously little, a black hole in our education."

Speaking in front an audience which included Wang Yongli, minister counsellor for education at China's embassy in the UK, Powell repeated Napoleon Bonaparte's famous quote about the country-"China is a sleeping giant; let her sleep, because when she wakes, she will move the world"-while discussing the country's traumatic past, how that shaped its resurgent present, and would direct its future.

"If ever a country has been through the wringer, it is China," he said. "It's the key to understanding modern China, born in humiliation, division and defeat, both because of self-exclusion from the world and through foreign subjugation and exploitation.

"What drives it now is a determination to expunge the shame of the past and, as Chairman Mao put it, to see China stand up again. I doubt any nation has ever been driven by any emotion as strong as this. It embraces nationalism, but it's more than nationalism, it's vindication and a desire for respect."

Powell's speech was by no means uncritical of all China policies. He said he was "not a panda hugger", and spoke of the environmental, economic and other challenges the country faced, while also supporting the US approach to engage more with China in fair trade, business and competition, saying that "its (Chinese) companies will be exposed to a much greater degree of competition until it figures out how to be both competitive and play by the rules".

But overall, he concluded, he felt upbeat about the role a resurgent China could play in world affairs, and said lessons must be learnt from the old Cold War between the West and Communist bloc in Eastern Europe to ensure such mistakes were not repeated when dealing with the new superpower.

"I am fundamentally positive about China's prospects," he said. "The Cold War, in its time, diverted resources on a massive scale and led us into enormous risks. There has to be a better way to resolve conflicts this time with the world's new rising power."

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