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Sino-British relations

Frank Sieren / dbJune 24, 2014

China is more important for Britain's future than the British like to admit, says DW columnist Frank Sieren.

Li Keqiang in London
Image: Reuters

China's Prime Minister Li Keqiang traveled to Britain last week for the first time since taking office - right on schedule for the tenth anniversary of the China-UK comprehensive strategic partnership.

His timing could hardly have been better: China definately stands to benefit from Britain's adverse attitude toward the EU. All China has to do is what it does best anyway, namely to invest and finance infrastructure projects.

Chinese express trains for Great Britain

One of those projects is a high-speed railway line scheduled to connect London and the north of the country beginning 2026. The 53 billion euro ($72 billion) project is a highlight for Britain, where railroads were invented in 1825. In fact, Britain was a global leader in the technology until Germans and Americans caught on and stole the technology. In the 20th century, Germany, France and Japan took over world leadership of the technology, and now, they are being challenged by China.

The Chinese don't necessarily build better trains. They entered the game mainly because they are in a position to finance such a project. Cameron can no longer count on the City of London, and the British state hasn't been able to finance such projects for quite some time on its own. The UK is in debt with 89 percent of the GDP, and infrastructure has steadily fallen into a state of decay. And Cameron doesn't want to ask the Europeans for money.

Frank Sieren
Britain increasingly turns to China, Sieren saysImage: Frank Sieren

So, to a certain extent, China is what the rich uncle from America used to be, who would help out in times of need. Finance Minister George Osborne, who has been asking himself for quite some time now how the impoverished country is able to finance its anti-European escapades if push comes to shove, heaved a sigh of relief once Li had signed the contracts to the tune of about 22 billion euros. In any case, China pledged that the two countries' volume of trade will rise from currently 62 billion euros to 75 billion euros next year - also for Britain's benefit.

Eventful history of Sino-British relations

This is a new twist in the roller coaster ride that marks Sino-British history.

In 1792, China's emperor dismissed George Macartney, an envoy sent by the British King to pave the way for equal trade relations with China, as if he were a mere peddler. In 1839 the British, armed with a few gunboats, forced China to its knees - and began to settle as a colonial power in China's port cities. The last one, Hong Kong, was returned to China in 1997.

A decade and half later, Britain's financial future increasingly depends on Chinese goodwill.

Infrastructure isn't the only issue at stake, either, but the question whether Frankfurt or London is the financial center for the new global currency, the yuan. In general the question is, how competitive will London remain to be as a banking center - Britain's last economic asset vis a vis Hong Kong and Singapore.

In the unlikely case that Britain exits the EU, it will certainly become even more dependent on Chinese money. Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit a few weeks ago to Germany rather than Britain is a signal in the name of protocol that in case of doubt, China regards Europe as more important than Britain. It was China's Prime Minister who visited Britain. The Russian example shows that dependence on China has major disadvantages, and not just advantages: a few weeks ago, Vladimir Putin was forced to virtually beg for another opportunity to clinch the gas deal with China.

China will benefit in any case

Whichever direction David Cameron chooses is a win-win situation for China: if Britain remains in the EU, China also gains influence in Brussels. Britain has already promised to fight for a free trade agreement between Europe and China - a notion mainland Europe has so far dismissed.

In any case, Cameron will do almost anything to keep Beijing happy. When Chinese protocol demanded that Prime Minister Li meet Queen Elisabeth II., the government made it possible although the monarch's protocol stipulates that she only receives two international visitors per year. As Germany's Angela Merkel visited Britain earlier this year, the Chinese visit has fulfilled this year's quota.

The royal guest list is a mirror image of the new global political balance of power. China is gaining in importance, and Germany is the most powerful rival in Europe. Britain is annoyed that Germany insists on austerity policies and urges closer cooperation in Europe.

They may have fallen behind as an economic power, but they still daydream about times bygone when the world regarded 0044 as the country code for Europe.

That has changed. Whoever wants something from Europe visits the German Chancellor before heading to Brussels. Whoever wants to weaken Europe, turns to the US, that old rival that stole Britain's status as a world power, and to the new friends. But they are no longer in a position to sufficiently support the UK financially and politically, like they have these past 70 years. The US won't work, Germany is not a good match - so that leaves China.

Our correspondent Frank Sieren is considered one of the leading German experts on China. He has lived in Beijing for the past 20 years.