China Builds a Road to the Future but Will Britain Join the Journey? the PM Is Seeing First Hand in Beijing How Her Hosts Invest in Skills and Expertise to Provide a Platform for the Next Generation

The Evening Standard (London, England), February 1, 2018 | Go to article overview

China Builds a Road to the Future but Will Britain Join the Journey? the PM Is Seeing First Hand in Beijing How Her Hosts Invest in Skills and Expertise to Provide a Platform for the Next Generation


Byline: Peter Frankopan

IT MUST be a relief for Theresa May to be on the other side of the world, far from the scheming within her party and gloomy briefing papers being leaked that forecast the effects of Brexit on the economy as ranging from bad to disastrous.

It's all good news in Wuhan and Beijing, though, where the Prime Minister is due to meet President Xi Jinping today. The result of the UK leaving the EU, wrote Theresa May earlier this week, is that the country will become "ever more outward-looking". That is good news for China, she went on, where the time has come to "intensify the golden era of UK-China relations".

Things have gone well so far during her visit, with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang stressing that "our relationship will not change with the changes of EUUK relations". That commitment to stability is a welcome relief after months of turbulence at home.

The Prime Minister was able to announce initiatives such as an extension of an exchange programme for maths teachers, a training scheme for primary school teachers in both countries and a campaign called "English is GREAT" (those capital letters presumably mean the slogan needs to be shouted; but maybe that's the point).

All lovely enough; but they are hardly signs of a golden era.

Still, it could have been worse. In 1793, the first British mission to China was told point blank that it had nothing of any interest to offer and that a trade deal was out of the question. China's connections penetrated deep into "every country under heaven", wrote the Qianlong Emperor to King George III. "We possess all things," he went on, "I have no use for your country's manufactures."

That turned out to be bluster -- and also wrong. In fact, it was Britain that had built connections to many countries "under the heaven", if not quite all of them. It was Britain that had a strategic plan and wanted access to the best markets on the best terms. And despite the initial rebuttal, it did so in China too -- so effectively, in fact, that a century later more than 80 per cent of Chinese exports were carried on British ships.

Now, 200 years on, the tables have turned. It is China that is establishing links all around the world. Much of this is being done as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing's signature foreign and economic policy that has so far committed nearly $1 trillion to infrastructure projects in Asia, Europe and Africa. The Belt and Road Initiative is inspired by the silk roads of the past which allowed trade to flow between continents and between peoples despite "differences in race, belief and cultural background", as President Xi put it when he announced the policy in Astana, Kazakhstan, in 2013.

The Belt and Road is a complex animal, with multiple aims and objectives. Understanding it requires careful analysis not only of its conception and execution but also its development and its consequences. Some commentators believe the investments in infrastructure are not financially viable and both obscure a host of issues, problems and challenges but also potentially put a series of time-bombs in place that will tick into the future; others take a more rosy view, and point to the massive scale of investment (almost exclusively in the form of loans), Chinese building expertise and the fact that there clearly can be mutual benefits to upgrading infrastructure that serves some 60 per cent of the world's population. …

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