Britain and China are embarking on a “golden era”, to be celebrated this week with the state visit of President Xi Jinping, who arrives in London tonight.
There has unsurprisingly been controversy about it, with Jeremy Corbyn seeking a private meeting with Chinese officials over human rights, and the Prince of Wales not going to the grand banquet at Windsor Castle.
But the event will be very much the full works, a four-day visit with all the grandeur we can muster, in an effort to rebuild our relationship with China following the rift that occurred after David Cameron met the Dalai Lama three years ago.
It follows a charm offensive by Prince William and George Osborne, who made separate visits to China earlier this year.
We are seeking to reset our relations with the leadership of the world’s second-largest economy.
"Good relations with the new economic superpower are better than bad ones."
You can view this in cynical terms — that we are acting in our narrow economic advantage — but I suggest that there is something bigger here.
This is part of a drive, led by Osborne, to reposition ourselves so that we look more towards the world and less towards Europe.
The thinking behind this is that, irrespective of what happens to our political relationship with Europe, the balance of our economic activity will shift away. That is not an excuse to thumb our nose at the European Union. That would be absurd. It is simply because growth will be greater elsewhere.
That is already happening: in the past three years there has been a shift in our exports away from the eurozone and towards North America and China.
This leads to a bigger question. Where really will economic leadership come from? China will overtake the US and become the world’s largest economy at some stage in the next 30 years. But will that really constitute leadership?
Its wealth per head will remain far lower. It probably will not have the technical expertise, or maybe the other qualities that combine to give intellectual leadership. The US, by contrast, seems set to keep pushing forward.
Nothing, however, is forever. If you look back over the past millennium as to where such leadership came from, it seems that no particular part of the world retains leadership for very long.
Should you be worried about China?
China was the most advanced economy during the Middle Ages, Italy in the Renaissance and Britain in the early 19th century. But it was Germany and the US by the end of that century — and of course the US today.
Japan, for all its contributions to the electronics and automotive industries is not really a frontier nation any longer although it seemed for a while in the 1980s that it would become one.
The world as a whole goes on advancing because innovations created in one region pass with great speed to others. Look at the spread of mobile telephony. But most of that advance is catch-up.
Now look at China’s position today through this lens of history. It has moved cautiously but steadily from a command economy to a semi-market one and in so doing has enormously enriched an increasing proportion of its people. It is a huge development success story.
It now has some areas of expertise that exceed those of many advanced western nations. It can build a nuclear power station. We can’t. So we have asked it to build one at Hinkley Point for us.
But the engineering and expertise behind this, and behind the network of high-speed railway lines it has built, came originally from the West.
Project: Plans for Hinkley Point (Picture: EDF)
China is by far the world’s largest car manufacturer. But the vehicles it produces either use Western technology or in some cases are direct rip-offs of Western designs.
Now some would contend that this is just an interim phase. They would point to the numbers of patents the country is filing as a sign that intellectual leadership is passing to China. They would look at the rising quality of Chinese universities.
Although some of their research might not pass international scrutiny, universities in Hong Kong have been shooting up the rankings. Give China time, and it will become the new US in intellectual competence as well as economic might.
The alternative view is that the combination of characteristics of the US, in particular its higher education system and its entrepreneurial zeal, will ensure that it remains the frontier nation for many years to come.
The rest of the world, including China, will continue to play catch-up.
There is nothing wrong with catch-up. We all learn from each other, and in any case it would be wrong to argue that all western innovation happens in the US.
China's growth has fallen to a six-year low
There are areas where the frontier is being pushed forward in Britain, Europe and Japan — though it is fair I think to say that despite its many competences Japan has failed to achieve the status that many expected a generation ago. However whether China becomes a true frontier nation, rather than a nimble follower, does matter to our future relations with the country.
Do we simply want access to its huge market, or are we interested in participating more fully in the relationship?
Of course we want access but if it becomes a frontier nation alongside the US, there is a lot more we can do together. We can, for example be its main beachhead for exporting into Europe, rather as we have been for Japan.
Maybe this will not herald a golden era, whatever that is, but good relations with the new economic superpower are better than bad ones.
Mind you, you can make exactly the same point about our relations with Europe. Better to be friends with your trading partners than have a punch-up with them.
Source: http://www.standard.co.uk Hamish Mcrae