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Prime Minister Theresa May travels to Beijing tomorrow hoping to shore up trade deals post-Brexit with the world’s second-largest economy amid reports of tensions surrounding the UK’s willingness to formally sign up to China’s flagship Belt and Road initiative (BRI).
Despite May’s reluctance to sign up to the BRI, the UK is already deeply intertwined with the multibillion dollar project.
The UK was the first G7 power to join the Chinese-instigated Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB), a platform aimed to support China’s outward infrastructure push; a report from 2015 by the China-Britain Business Council and Tsinghua University showed how UK companies were already doing projects worth around $27bn with Chinese firms in BRI locations. In addition, any British company worth its mettle with deep interests in China has had an established BRI strategy for some time.
And, as Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond stated at last year’s Belt and Road summit in Beijing, ‘As China drives forward the Belt and Road initiative from the East we in Britain are a natural partner in the West’.
The entry point into this business chain for non-Chinese companies has, therefore to be an existing link with a Chinese firm
In sum, the UK is already playing a role in the initiative, although questions persist about how the UK can connect with President Xi Jinping’s globe-spanning vision. There are four elements that should guide Britain in this debate.
First, build on existing connections. There is often a public misconception that the BRI is a large aid project. Indeed, the initiative amounts to a vision for improving connectivity across the Eurasian landmass, through underdeveloped countries that need infrastructure development, but it does this using Chinese funds and enterprises. Often projects are financed using linked loans provided to countries with stipulations of using Chinese contractors.
The entry point into this business chain for non-Chinese companies has, therefore to be an existing link with a Chinese firm or bank, rather than necessarily waiting for contracts to be pushed out into the open market.
Foreign companies that can develop such arrangements are likely to be those already connected to Chinese firms or Banks and have a longstanding presence in Beijing, a deep history in the target market or those with specific technical know-how that is required in delivery of the ultimate project which the Chinese firm is lacking.
Second, British corporate actors should focus on foreign markets where the UK has an edge. Chinese banks and enterprises will often not have the necessary history or expertise in a target market and this provides an opportunity for British corporations or policymakers.
Certain niche opportunities include, for example, Pakistan, where the legal system is largely modelled on Britain, Kazakhstan whose major firms are listed on UK stock exchanges and, until recently, the UK was Kenya’s largest source of foreign direct investment (FDI). All three of these countries are identified as key BRI states, and all are where the UK has deep experience which can be leveraged, together with Chinese companies penetrating that market.
The UK must establish a more coherent and considered security relationship with China
Third, British planners and commercial actors must remember that Chinese infrastructure investment in many countries will potentially create opportunities for a next wave of investments. The BRI is about building trade and economics corridors, often starting with much-needed infrastructure.
However, for this to provide benefits to locals, and generate a sustainable future, it will need to be developed into a broader economy. Something that will require many ancillary projects and construction.
Targeting this next wave of projects which build on the initial Chinese-dominated infrastructure wave is going to be key in ensuring the long-term viability of the BRI.
Government departments, such as the Department for International Development and the Department for International Trade, should, therefore, concentrate on this potential next wave, seeking both the trade opportunities, but also separately ensuring that poverty alleviation, environmental and sustainable development goals are advanced in relevant locations. In other words, BRI should be piggybacked by outside powers like the UK.
Beyond the BRI, the UK must establish a more coherent and considered security relationship with China. This includes considering the many key UK security relationships that may clash with Beijing’s view of the world. However, it needs to recognise that, as one of the world’s major economies, China will have an international security footprint.
Engaging with this footprint, cooperating where useful (in counterterrorism, in countries where we have shared interests such as Afghanistan, in military operations other than conflict like rescuing nationals or alleviating humanitarian disasters), while not shying away from criticising when relevant remain key ingredients.
Drawing ‘red lines’ while continuing to engage remains the only practical way to manage such an emergent security power. The reality is that a global interconnected world is one that currently favours China and one that Beijing wants to maintain.
It is also equally important for the UK to remember that Asia’s rise is not just a Chinese story
Finally, the UK needs to focus on continuing to push China to open its markets further. Among European economies, the UK is one of the most open and attractive to Chinese investors.
According to cumulative figures published by the Rhodium Group, the UK attracted some €23.6 billion in Chinese FDI between 2000–2016. Next closest was Germany at €18.8 billion.
Consequently, it is only proper that Britain should expect some reciprocation and should be willing to draw lines around investments that are made into the UK.
And this reciprocation has to be founded on improving the rule of law and accountability in China. And when this is not met, then clear lines need to be drawn in return about the degree to which China is allowed to invest in the UK.
It is also equally important for the UK to remember that Asia’s rise is not just a Chinese story. Beijing is the most prominent of several ascending Asian powers, and the UK needs to enhance its diplomatic and security engagement across the region.
This is something that the UK needs to do while at the same time continuing to enhance its engagement with Europe. As a power making an active choice to withdraw from one of the world’s most powerful economic and political blocs, the UK needs to engage in deft diplomacy around the world and demonstrate its continuing relevance as a major player on the world stage.
Prime Minister Theresa May meets Chinese President Xi Jinping at the State Guesthouse, on the second day of the 2016 G20 Summit in Hangzhou, China. Courtesy of PA Images
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.