Comprehensive deal vital to Britain's stability

Updated: 2016-10-14 07:35

By Chris Peterson in London(China Daily Europe)

  Comments() Print Mail Large Medium  Small

As nation shapes up for a 'hard Brexit', China ties should not be taken for granted, politicians and analysts say

One of the first rules of diplomacy is never take anything for granted.

As Britain shapes up to what is increasingly looking like a messy divorce from the European Union, or a "hard Brexit", attention is being focused as never before on Britain's relationships with other world partners.

China is the main focus, as it is the fastest-developing economic superpower and is increasingly becoming the world's banker.

Politicians and analysts on all sides agree that relations with a China that is in the ascendant are key to Britain's survival, and there is a danger that British officials may be taking China for granted.

The last time Britain and China held serious diplomatic talks over a shared issue - in this case, Hong Kong - things were markedly different.

Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese studies and director of the Lau China Institute at King's College London, writes in The Diplomat newsletter that in the run-up to the Hong Kong agreement, Britain had a larger economy than China and, at the time, was an equivalent, if a more important, world player.

Times have changed. Experts agree that doing a comprehensive trade deal with China is vital to Britain's survival as a key world player. Chinese investment and access to China's huge domestic market are vital ingredients.

That won't come easily. Many commentators in Britain have talked as if signing a trade deal with China is simply a case of filling in the gaps and signing off on the deal. Nothing could be further from the truth.

China has become the economic powerhouse it is today with a direct approach, with its government making sure any agreement is in China's best interests, as any country would.

Brown cites trade agreements with Australia, Switzerland and New Zealand as cases in point.

"They (the Chinese) will take what they can, open up only if they have to, and aim to come out on the winning side," he writes. "So far, China has a 100 percent winning record here."

Officials on both sides have made much of the "golden era" of relations between Britain and China, and that is certainly a fair description as cultural and investment links flourish in the wake of President Xi Jinping's state visit a year ago.

Chinese indications that it is ready to negotiate a bilateral trade deal as soon as Britain's divorce from the EU is finalized have also been welcomed. But here, too, a note of warning should be sounded.

Britain has been a member of the EU for more than 40 years, and during that time all trade deals have been negotiated through the EU. In other words, Britain no longer has the experienced officials vital in negotiating a fair deal. China does, obviously.

There have been other warning signals for Britain. For generations, much as been made of the "special relationship" that has existed with the US since World War II. But that wasn't enough to stop President Barack Obama saying bluntly that in the event of an exit from the EU, London would be at the back of the line as far as discussing a separate trade deal was concerned.

Just to make the point, he and his officials repeated that after the June 24 referendum that ended in victory for the Leave campaign.

British officials are aware that, this time, the UK will be approaching China as a supplicant.

Tim Summers, a senior consulting fellow with the Chatham House Asia Programme, in Hong Kong, warned that a Sino-British deal shouldn't be taken for granted.

"With all the other challenges facing the UK, a coherent China strategy may be too much to hope for. And the UK's approach to China will depend on how relations with the EU pan out," he says. "So, China policy looks like it will be yet another area of uncertainty for Britain as it extracts itself from the EU."

(China Daily European Weekly 10/14/2016 page3)