Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

The Future of UK-China Trade

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 22nd October, 2017

JF addressing Chinese LibDems AGMLiam Fox and other Brexiteers in the UK’s current Conservative government are fond of saying that when we are “free” from the European Union, we will be able to enter into a great new dawn of trading partnerships with other big players around the world, not least China. Actually, it was David Cameron and the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, who really championed the idea of a bright future hand-in-hand with the People’s Republic, though they never imagined that would be something totally separate from EU-China trading relations. Theresa May, interestingly, has been a little more cautious in her embrace of President Xi Jinping, who has been expertly consolidating his authority at the Chinese People’s Congress this week. But despite the bluff reassurances of Liam Fox, David Davis and Boris Johnson, forging an advantageous new trading relationship with China is unlikely to be straightforward, for a number of reasons. First, until Britain formally leaves the EU — in principle on 29 March 2019 — it cannot make any bilateral arrangement with Beijing. Moreover, there are not sufficiently qualified negotiators in Whitehall to handle such a sensitive matter (as the EU has dealt with our trade negotiations for the past four decades) and little Britain, with 60 million inhabitants, is going to be at a distinct disadvantage in taking tough with the colossus of China, unlike the 500-million strong EU, which is still the largest trading bloc in the world. Bilateral trade is already skewed in China’s favour, and is likely to be more so in future, not less. Other factors make prospects mixed. China under Mr Xi is becoming more assertive in global affairs, having largely sat on the sidelines for many years, even within the UN Security Council. Many people in China believe the time has now come for China to reassert its pre-eminence in the world, as was the case prior to 1500 and the rise of European Empires. The four hundred years of European dominance, followed by a century of American hegemony, may in future be seen as a blip in comparison to China’s long supremacy. Then there is the issue of Donald Trump, who is repositioning the United States to be more isolationist (and certainly more self-centred), racheting up conflicts with countries such as Iran and North Korea in a way that risks souring US-China relations. Yet Theresa May aspires to be Mr Trump’s greatest ally, despite disagreeing with him over the Iran nuclear deal. This could prove awkward. In the meantime, the British government has downgraded human rights as a priority in its foreign policy, which is sweet music to Xi Jinping’s ears — though Britain must be careful to ensure that as a future relationship evolves it does not end up dancing to Beijing’s tune.

This is a summary of remarks I made as the guest speaker today in London’s Chinatown at the AGM of Chinese Liberal Democrats:  https://chineselibdems.org.uk/

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