Sieren′s China: Beijing lends cash and know-how to UK | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 10.03.2015
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Sieren's China: Beijing lends cash and know-how to UK

Prince William's recent visit to China was proof positive that Britain is keen to get on Beijing's good side. It won't be the last European country currying favor with China, DW columnist Frank Sieren writes.

On his visit to China last week, Prince William killed two birds with one stone, one might say. Funnily enough, the Chinese have the same expression. Second in line to the British throne, William was basically there for the photo opportunities. The prince chatted with President Xi Jinping about sport, attended a film premiere in Shanghai and visited a sanctuary for Asian elephants in Yunnan province. It wasn't all just for fun. While the pictures of the prince suit Chinese protocol nicely, Britain too stands to gain from this photogenic display of its friendship. These days, after all, China is the British construction industry's biggest patron.

The fact that Downing Street sent the first royal in 29 years to the Chinese mainland is evidence of how much the country matters to Britain right now. Queen Elizabeth went to China in 1986, when the return of the crown colony Hong Kong was starting to loom. At the time, being seen in Beijing was hardly appropriate, and, after the handover, it became even more inappropriate. Three years ago, British Prime Minister David Cameron welcomed the Dalai Lama in London. Beijing saw this as a deliberate provocation and held a grudge for some time. China sulked again when Cameron clearly sided with the demonstrators during the recent democracy protests in Hong Kong. A British parliamentary commission was even refused a visa to the territory.

Frank Sieren

DW columnist Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for 20 years.

A certain amount of reserve would not be surprising given all these tensions. No one would have been surprised if William had postponed his visit for a year. But, apparently, both sides are willing to forget their differences and get down to business. Nothing is forgotten, nothing is forgiven. But the tensions appear to have been put aside.

Britain's infrastructure is crumbling, and the country has no money. China has plenty of money - as well as expertise that comes at reasonable prices. This is why Cameron has waltzed through Beijing a few times of late, and Premier Li Keqiang went to London last year. Britain might not have been included on his first European trip, but he made it there within his first year in office. And then last week, President Xi promised Prince William that he would be accepting the queen's invitation to come to London. The queen hardly receives anyone these days.

China has become Britain's construction company of choice. A construction company that brings with it its own bank financing plan. Other European countries might like to take a closer look at this business relationship - especially the Germans. Not least because it could soon catch on in other European countries. While China looks to Germany for technology and know-how, and has an interest in buying some companies, in Britain it's just a case of build, build, build! Beijing will invest 145 billion euros ($155 billion) in British roads, rail and airports by the year 2025 - 10 times as much as it already put into British infrastructure between 2005 and 2013, and twice as much as Germany exports to China every year.

Why exactly are the Brits letting China, rather than Germany, finance and build all their new infrastructure projects? Might it be because, along with other disasters, the Berlin airport debacle has made Germany an international laughingstock? Or because its roads are still a mess despite the fact that tax revenue is at an all-time high? Or is it because German expertise is not particularly cheap? All things considered, China is better than Germany at building infrastructure at affordable prices. Chinese investment rescued Heathrow airport. And China also lent heavy support to the new motorway between London and Manchester.

Germany has also forfeited its place in another sector, albeit for very different reasons: When Premier Li visited London last year, he inked a number of deals that meant that China would not only be helping finance British nuclear power plants but that Chinese companies will be building and operating them so long as they adhere to UK safety standards.

The bottom line is that Britain is getting a facelift thanks to Chinese money and know-how. A model that appears to work well not only in many African and South American countries but which is well on its way to becoming the norm in Europe, too.

China has been cultivating its business ties with Greece for some time. Talks between Paris and Beijing have been under way for some time, and France appears to be next in line to benefit from Chinese magnanimity. Late last year, a consortium comprising the state-owned Shandong Hi-Speed Group bought up 49 percent of the airport in Toulouse - the fourth largest city in the country, after Paris, Lyon and Marseille. It's the equivalent of China's buying up half of Cologne's airport.

Welcome to the future. It might not be long before German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble starts warming to the idea of making China a prime contractor - and Beijing a joint partner. It would certainly get value for money. And fiascos such as the long-delayed Berlin airport and the Elbe Philharmonic Hall in Hamburg would be nothing but painful memories.

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