Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Britain in October 2015 was a resounding success and has laid the groundwork for harmonious bilateral ties, but certain elements of the fine details still need to be hashed out. As a result, Philip Hammond, the British Foreign Secretary, visited Beijing in early April on route to Hiroshima for the G7 Foreign Ministers' Meeting. The atmosphere was cordial; Hammond's comment on the visit, and on his meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, was, "We are building on the global partnership established during last year's successful state visit by President Xi, by working together closely on international challenges and strengthening our trade and investment links."
As active examples of this global partnership, he included the newly inaugurated bilateral dialogues on security and peacekeeping, a new joint research fund to combat the serious problem of antimicrobial resistance, and cooperation on the specific security challenges presented by Syria, Iran and North Korea.
Since President Xi's state visit, bilateral relations have been warm; the Chinese side spoke of prospects for a new "golden age" of Sino-British relations, and the British Government did everything in its power to ensure the success of the visit, which produced a glittering array of commercial agreements. Since then, both sides have worked hard to put flesh on the bones of the framework created at the time of the state visit.
At the end of February, Chinese Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng came to Britain for the 12th conference of the China-UK Joint Economic and Trade Commission, and praised the joint bilateral efforts which "have given rise to a pattern of mutually beneficial, overall, sweeping and multi-level cooperation in the economy and trade."
Certainly no one in Britain wishes to see any disruption to this pattern. But there are internal problems which might threaten the accord with China, and Hammond is intent on averting any such threat; it is always better to avert potential problems at an early stage rather than allowing them to grow to a seriously disturbing level.
China's excellence in the field of infrastructure is universally recognized, and its participation in the (much-needed) modernization of Britain's transport and energy sectors is welcome. But there is a perception in the UK that the British steel industry is suffering under competition from imported Chinese steel, as it is well known that economic developments within China have resulted in a degree of overproduction in this industry. This, of course, is a positive element in the context of the Belt and Road Initiative, through which China can supply steel to infrastructure projects in countries lacking in domestic capacity. But, in Britain, the domestic steel industry has been under severe pressure for some time, and the Indian company Tata, which owns much of it, is trying to sell off a number of steel plants, threatening to put large numbers of employees out of work.
Hammond is not, of course, blaming any of this on China. But he is hoping that, in the context of the recent revival of bilateral relations, China will understand the British position and do what it can to help. China, after all, is very well acquainted with social problems which can be caused by de-industrialization and unemployment. He urged China to accelerate its efforts to reduce levels of steel production. This falls in line with the existing Chinese policy.
Hammond told his Chinese interlocutors that the steel industry, despite competitive pressures related to labor costs, energy prices, and the regulatory environment, remains an item of strategic importance for the UK. One potential answer to this problem, which Hammond repeatedly raised, might be to invite Chinese companies to make investments in UK steelmaking. It remains to be seen whether this measure will be successful. Nevertheless, the appetite of the British industry for further Chinese investment remains strong.
It is a constant concern in Sino-British relations that China should not regard Britain as a disruptive factor on issues regarding Hong Kong. Hammond visited Hong Kong immediately before arriving in Beijing, the first British foreign secretary to visit the territory for five years. He underlined British commitment to the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong and subsequent agreements relating to the 1997 transfer, and explicitly repudiated any suggestion by extreme elements of "Hong Kong independence." The visit was aimed at assuring the Chinese that Britain has no interest in antagonizing China, either politically or economically. It was also designed to foster hope that any obstacles to the smooth roll-out of the bilateral cooperation program can be swiftly removed.
The author is a columnist with China.org.cn and a former British diplomat. The article was originally published on the news website
Copyedited by Dominic James Madar
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