Xi’s visit to Britain is also about the EU

2015-10-22 11:29China Daily Editor: Wang Fan

President Xi Jinping's recent trip to the United States grabbed global headlines. [Special coverage]

By going to Britain, the Chinese leader is sending an equally important signal of his interest an determination in deepening and expanding China's ties with Britain—but also with Europe.

Beijing and Washington certainly need to talk to each other on a range of bilateral and international issues. And the Sino American agreements reached on cyber security and climate change will help ease relations between the world's two leading political and economic actors.

But President Xi and Prime Minister Li Keqiang's many visits to Brussels, Paris, Berlin this year— and now Xi's high profile trip to Britain—underline that China and Europe have also made a strategic choice to further develop and expand relations.

China's focus on Europe and Britain is important for several reasons. Tackling challenges in a multipolar and multi complex world requires more than cooperation between China and the US. It also demands working in tandem with the European Union and its 28 member states.

Britain, given its global role and influence is, of course, especially important. President Xi's visit, including his high level meetings, underline to a watching world— and to the rest of Europe—that China still views Britain as a key international player.

Significantly, Xi's visit follows a trip to China by UK Chancellor George Osborne last month, during which he said Britain should be China's "best partner in the West".

It's not just Britain that wants closer ties with China, however. Germany remains a strong contender for the title of Beijing's "best friend" in Europe. And more generally, while relations between China and individual EU states are important, ties with the EU are also improving, with the launch of the connectivity platform and the agreement to cooperate on developing 5G networks.

Europe certainly has the markets China needs for its exports – and trade is still booming. European expertise and know how is critically important to help meet China's urbanization, climate, innovation and other developmental challenges. Most recently, there is a focus on synergies between the Belt and Road Initiative and Europe's own investment blueprint for transport, digital and technology networks. Britain and British companies have a key role to play in such cooperation, both on a bilateral level but also through the EU.

True, the EU's many recent crises have eroded much of its luster. The last year has been especially difficult difficult as EU leaders grappled with continuing troubles in the euro zone, struggled to tackle the influx of refugees fleeing war and conflict in Syria and Africa while also dealing with longer term problems of low growth and high unemployment.

For the next few months, the focus in London and Brussels and in other EU capitals will be on Britain and the country's upcoming referendum on its membership of the EU.

The EU is hoping that Britain will opt to stay in. And while no EU leader would say so in public, many are clearly hoping that President Xi will give a clear but subtle message to British citizens to vote in favour of EU membership. As such, it is especially significant that the Chinese president will be meeting leaders of the opposition parties and parliamentary leaders.

But that's not the only reason that the EU will be keeping a close watch on President Xi's speeches and meetings in Britain. China watchers in Brussels and elsewhere in the EU will be hoping to learn more about the state of the Chinese economy after the market volatility over the summer and what to expect as China's development priorities in the upcoming 13th Five-Year Plan.

Meanwhile, Xi's speech in the City of London is expected to provide further insight into China's hopes for the internationalization of the renminbi and also provide information on China's priorities as it prepares to take over as chair of the G20.

Certainly as in other EU capitals, the focus will be on business, with Britain looking for Chinese investments in key projects such as a high speed rail line in the north of the country. Chancellor Osborne, who was recently in China, is hoping to clinch a deal on Chinese investments in the Hinkley Point nuclear power station. The UK is now China's largest investment destination in Europe.

More investment opportunities for Chinese companies are expected to open up in the railway, energy, aviation, and telecommunications industries. Significantly, leading the way for other European countries, Britain joined the Chinese led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), despite opposition from Washington, earlier this year. Within the EU, Britain's opinion is important as the EU and China negotiate their bilateral investment treaty and will be even more important if and when the two sides start discussions on free trade agreement.

There used to be a time not so long ago when China's friendships with individual EU member states were viewed with suspicion by Brussels. Fortunately, such unease is now mostly over, with many policymakers agreeing that stronger bilateral ties between the China and individual EU member states—including Britain—help to consolidate and deepen the wider EU China relationship.

The author, Shada Islam, is policy director of Friends of Europe, an influential thinktank in Brussels.


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