A decade ago to the month, I completed my one-year stay in London and returned to China. As I was writing up my MA thesis, the city experienced a summer of jubilation and sorrow. On 6 July the eve of the G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland – London won the bid to host the 2012 Summer Olympic Games. The next morning, the city was rocked by a series of bombings on its public transport system.
Back in 2005, Britain was one spot ahead of China in the world’s economic league table. At the G8 summit held on that fateful July day, China was invited only to its outreach dialogue’– in other words, a marginal voice, not a seat at the high table of global decision-making. In September of that year, US deputy secretary of state Robert Zoellick famously called on China to become a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in the international system.
Since then, a lot has happened to both countries.
China staged an exceptional Olympic Games in 2008 and overtook Japan as the world’s second largest economy in 2010. Under President Xi Jinping, the new leadership that took the helm in 2012 has answered the people’s desire for a better life and crystallized it into the ‘Chinese Dream’. President Xi has set forth the goal of ushering the country into ‘initial prosperity’ and doubling the per capita GDP of 2010 by 2020. To do this, he has unveiled a multi-pronged strategy of deepening reform, entrenching the rule of law and enforcing Party discipline.
Britain has survived the repercussions of the global financial crisis and European sovereign debt crisis. Since 2013, its economy has not only recovered but also become the best performing one in the G8, helped in part by a highly competitive services sector. Though Beijing was a hard act to follow, London delivered a spectacular Olympics in 2012. At a time when many countries turned inwards, Britain has remained ‘open for business’, cementing ties with emerging markets and welcoming international students to its world-class universities.
Looking back, the last ten years has been a transformational decade not just for China and Britain, but also for our bilateral relations.
Two months after I touched down in Beijing in 2005, then Chinese President Hu Jintao paid a State Visit to the UK, during which the two sides celebrated the one-year-old ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’. In the ensuing decade, the relationship has become more ‘comprehensive’ and ‘strategic’ under both Labour and Conservative-led coalition governments. The two sides have kept up an intense pace of high-level visits, including the Annual Prime Ministers’ Meeting, Strategic Dialogue, Economic and Financial Dialogue, and People-to-People Dialogue.
The commercial relationship has been robust. Britain has emerged as China’s second largest trading partner in the EU and attracts more Chinese investment than France and Germany combined. It is the first major Western country to embrace the Beijing-initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and welcomes Chinese bidding for its High Speed 2 (HS2) railway. China supports London as a global financial centre and the premier renminbi (RMB) offshore market after Hong Kong. The two countries are also in a win-win partnership to ensure the success of Hickley Point nuclear power plant.
The cultural interflows have been impressive, leading to better understanding between the two countries. ‘Seed Cathedral’, Britain’s iconic pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo, is fondly remembered by the millions of Chinese who had visited, including me. ‘The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army’exhibition at the British Museum was its most popular since 1972. Harry Potter and Sherlock Holmes may have more Chinese fans than British ones. And while there are 150,000 Chinese students in the UK, Whitehall has announced the ambition to double the number of Mandarin learners in the country by 2020.
Last but not least, the China-UK relationship is increasingly one with global impact. Both countries are permanent members of the UN Security Council and vital voices in the G20. Both stand up for free trade and against protectionism. Britain supports a bigger say for China in multilateral financial institutions as well as RMB’s inclusion in the IMF reserve currency basket. In addition, both sides desire the conclusion of an ambitious China-EU investment agreement and the possibility of a China-EU FTA. And as part of EU3+3, both have contributed to the historic agreement on the Iranian nuclear file as a result of negotiations going back over a decade.
Francis Bacon reputedly said that ‘The golden age is not behind us, but before us’. With this week’s State Visit by President Xi Jinping to the UK, the philosopher-turned statesman may have inadvertently predicted what would be the case for China-UK relations in the coming decade and beyond.
The article was originally published in China Daily.