Liu Xiaoming: Past experience crucial for China-UK future

  • Liu Xiaoming: Former Chinese ambassador to the UK, China Forum Expert

    Fifty years ago, China and the United Kingdom seized the trend of history, defied various difficulties and established diplomatic relations at the ambassadorial level. Over the past half-century, this relationship has forged ahead despite twists and turns, and borne fruitful results. It has brought tangible benefits to the people of both countries, and contributed to global peace and prosperity. Its growth has been attributable to three tenets that both sides have adhered to during the past five decades:


    First, the ice-breaking spirit to open up new prospects. Among the major Western countries, the UK was the first to recognize and do business with the People's Republic, the first to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the first to issue sovereign bonds in Chinese currency, the first to appoint a special envoy for Belt and Road cooperation, and the first to sign the Guiding Principles on Financing the Development of the Belt and Road.

    On China's part, we established the comprehensive strategic partnership with the UK before all other European countries. China has also chosen London to issue its first overseas RMB sovereign bond and central bank bill, helping London become the world's biggest offshore RMB trading center. These pioneering steps and "firsts" embody the ice-breaking spirit. They show that when both sides take a long-term view and catch the trend of the times, China-UK relations will continue to lead the way for the relationships between China and Western countries.

    Second, the spirit of mutually beneficial cooperation. In 1972, trade between China and the UK was worth only $300 million. There was barely any mutual investment, and the number of Chinese students in the UK was just over 100. Today, bilateral trade has exceeded $100 billion, and two-way investment has approached $50 billion. As many as 200,000 Chinese students are studying in the UK. Bilateral cooperation has been expanded to the emerging areas such as green technology, green finance and digital economy.

    In the face of global challenges, China and the UK have joined hands to defend multilateralism, combat climate change, protect biodiversity, promote global development and fight COVID-19. These facts and figures embody the spirit of cooperation for win-win outcomes. They tell us that when both countries act in the fundamental interests of the two peoples, we will be able to deliver our commitments and responsibilities as major countries, and bring greater benefit to both countries and the world at large.

    Third, the spirit of seeking common ground while shelving differences. Fifty years ago, transcending differences in ideology and social system, China and the UK signed the Joint Communique on Exchange of Ambassadors, in which both sides confirm the principles of mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, non-interference in each other's internal affairs, and equality and mutual benefit, with the British side acknowledging that Taiwan is a province of the People's Republic of China and recognizing the Government of the People's Republic of China as the sole legal Government of China. It was on that basis that China-UK relations were elevated to the ambassadorial level.

    In the 1980s, Chinese and British leaders, with extraordinary wisdom, laid the political foundation for the settlement of the Hong Kong question, setting a great example of resolving historical issues peacefully through diplomatic negotiations. Over the past five decades, in a spirit of openness, inclusiveness and seeking common ground while shelving differences, Chinese and British people from all walks of life have risen above the differences in language, culture and value, and worked tirelessly to add many new dimensions to our cooperation.

    During my 11-year tenure as China's Ambassador to the UK, I had the honour of playing a part for the "Golden Era" of China-UK relations and witnessing the ever-growing cooperation and the ever-deepening friendship between the two countries. A major takeaway from my ambassadorship is this: I firmly believe that China-UK relations are of great importance to both countries. Despite some difficulties in recent years, the significance of this relationship has not faded, neither for our two countries nor for the world. I often say that we have one thousand reasons to make this relationship successful and not one to let it fail. This is still my firm belief today. Looking forward, I think the following four elements are crucial to ensure the success of this relationship:

    The first crucial element is mutual understanding-ability to view each other in an objective light.

    As President Xi Jinping said, for China-Britain relations to fare well, understanding is the precondition. China regards the UK as a strategic partner and wants to grow with the UK by having exchanges and learning from one another.

    China sees in post-Brexit UK more opportunities for cooperation. What does the UK see in China? The answer appeared more frequently in British government documents and official remarks, which regard China as "systemic competitor", "economic coercer" and "malign actor"-labels that had never been used on China before.

    China always respects other countries' choice of development paths suited to their own conditions. We have no interest in exporting our system or any intent to challenge or replace anyone. Accusations of economic coercion and malign action against China are simply far-fetched.

    It is definitely not China that likes to wield the club of trade sanctions, violate other countries' sovereignty and trample on international law and norms of international relations. We urge some people in the UK to perceive China correctly. Only by being sensible and respecting truth can China-UK relations keep moving forward on the right track.

    The second element is mutual trust-the basis for cooperation that benefits both sides.

    China and the UK need to revive the good tradition of overcoming barriers and disturbances to blaze trails and seek the greatest convergence of interests. The two sides can and should pursue mutually beneficial cooperation on the basis of mutual trust, which will serve as a solid foundation for our bilateral ties.

    China has always been open and positive toward cooperation with the UK. We welcome more British companies to China to explore our market. In the same vein, we hope the UK will provide Chinese businesses with a stable and friendly political environment and a fair, just and nondiscriminatory business environment.

    I believe that such cooperation will bring greater mutual trust, which will in turn generate vast opportunities for more cooperation. This is the kind of virtuous cycle and shared future that both sides should strive for.

    The third element is mutual respect-ability to properly manage differences.

    China and the UK differ in social system, culture, tradition and level of development. It is only natural that we may sometimes disagree. What is important though is to respect each other and keep an open mind as we approach these differences.

    China never tries to convince others that our visions and philosophies are universal. We always respect the choices made by the British people, and we have never meddled in the UK's internal affairs.

    Similarly, we hope the UK would respect the choices of the Chinese people and respect China's core interests, including sovereignty, security and development interests.

    Leaders of our countries have agreed to make cooperation, not differences, the defining feature of our bilateral relations. If we want China-UK relations to grow steadily and sustainably, then we must not lose our focus on cooperation, and we must handle our differences with prudence and care.

    The fourth element is mutual support-willingness to respond to global challenges together.

    The world continues to be ravaged by COVID-19 and new crises brought by the conflict in Ukraine. The international order and global governance face unprecedented challenges.

    The longer this conflict lasts, the worse the impact of the crises becomes. The immediate priority is to stop the fighting. Europe needs to take effective action to play a primary role in seeking a political settlement of the crisis and build a balanced, effective and sustainable European security framework.

    China has always been on the side of peace. We have worked actively to facilitate dialogue for peace, and we support all efforts conducive to resolving the crisis. 

    At this moment, there is a particular need to watch out for the attempts of certain countries to accentuate bloc-based confrontation or drum up a new Cold War internationally. China and the UK are major countries with global influence and both permanent members of the UN Security Council. For both our countries, it is more important than ever to stay calm and cool-headed, say no to Cold War mentality and ideological bias, and work together to contribute solutions to global challenges.

    British biologist Thomas Henry Huxley once said, "The great end of life is not knowledge, but action." We must know our mission, understand the global trend and act accordingly. This is the only way to show our responsibility to history, to the times we live in and to the future we will leave behind for posterity. Let us all pitch in and write a new chapter of next 50 years of progress for China-UK relations.

    (This article was originally published on China Daily on June 7, 2022.)

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