CGTN INTERVIEW: Post-Brexit UK needs a 'balanced approach' towards China and an FTA
Abhishek G Bhaya

Despite soured political relations between China and the UK over Hong Kong, British entrepreneurs and businessmen in China are optimistic about bilateral business and economic opportunities which they feel may eventually help in resolving the political tension.

As a post-Brexit UK prepares to re-calibrate its role in a world battered by the COVID-19 pandemic, the British Chamber of Commerce in China called on London to prioritize trade negotiations with China and work towards a bilateral free-trade agreement.

BritCham China also urged the UK to have a balanced approach towards China without being swayed by "external political pressures," in a subtle but clear reference to the U.S. which is rallying international support as it hardens its confrontational attitude against China.

To understand the future bilateral opportunities between China and the UK in these testing times, CGTN Digital's International Editor Abhishek G Bhaya spoke with Steve Lynch, managing director of the British Chamber of Commerce in China.

Edited excerpts:

Bhaya: Why do you think a China-UK free trade agreement is important for a post-Brexit UK and also at a time when economies around the world have been impacted by COVID-19?

Read also: British Chamber calls for China-UK free trade deal

Lynch: We call for the UK and China to prioritize a free trade agreement. China is the second largest economy in the world and it is also the UK's second largest trading partner outside of the European Union. Last year, trade between the UK and the Chinese mainland was 80 billion British pounds. If we add in Hong Kong, it was up to 104 billion pounds. The economic and social impact of this free trade agreement between the UK and China would be significant.

How has COVID-19 affected the British business community in China? Going forward, how do you assess the general situation in China for British businesses?

I suppose the initial impact of COVID-19 on Britain's businesses here in China was extremely negative, extremely significant. However, we are now on the road to recovery. Things are still uncertain globally, but one thing that's really paramount is that we keep the conversation with China open. 

We look for a multilateral and bilateral dialogue and only through this will we really move towards the recovery phase globally, for COVID-19. This is not a time to stop talks. This is time to open dialogue. And I think that the world must communicate and must work together at a time like this to avoid a global recession on the back of COVID-19.

Being the voice of the British business community, we're cautiously optimistic about the recovery here in China. A lot of our British nationals in our companies are stuck outside the country now and that's causing significant impact to their businesses, whether it be a CEO of a small and medium enterprise, or the teachers for the international business community. 

We call on the UK and China to create a fast-track system to bring up British nationals who are working here that will improve British business, but also the Chinese economic recovery.

Which are the key sectors that could drive China-UK business ties in the future?

One of the interesting things about the UK is we're a service economy. That's actually the inverse of our exports to China. So, there is absolutely phenomenal amount of development and growth that could happen here in the China market. 

We have seen some vast opening ups and reform in the last year to which we absolutely welcome and commend China. Specifically, we've seen opening up in finance, around the foreign investment law, energy – removing some of those sectors from the negative list. We've seen IT and telecoms improved. Looking forward, there's Healthy China 2030 and there are lots of complementarity between the UK and healthcare. Also, education, a huge sector for the UK economy. 

So, I'm very optimistic about UK-China relations and UK-China trade moving forward, but one thing we actively call for is more tangible implementations of reforms in China.

We notice a radical shift in public sentiments in the West against China following the outbreak. U.S. President Donald Trump appears to be leading a vigorous anti-China campaign rallying support from allies, including the UK. BritCham China appears to realize the danger of such an approach and has urged London to take a more balanced view without being swayed by external political pressures. What impact will this political development have on China-UK economic ties and why is this "balanced approach" so crucial at the moment?

Thanks for highlighting that. That's one of our key recommendations. And I think that's one of my key messages that I would like to put out to the UK and globally. We must keep an informed and constructive dialogue with China. We welcome the robust dialogue that's taking place at the moment, globally and back in the UK, but these voices must be informed. 

We must look to the people who really know what's happening around the relationship. And if that takes place, there are lots of mutually shared interests. Whether that be China's move towards combating climate change, or global shift towards combating the healthcare crisis around COVID-19, we must work together. We must take a more nuanced, balanced approach to what's happening here.

The situation in Hong Kong has adversely affected the China-UK political relations. Do you think the British business community in China and Hong Kong can play a role in bridging this gap between the two countries?

Obviously, the situation at the moment in Hong Kong is quite tense. And we certainly watch what's happening very closely. On thing that's very clear is that if we want Hong Kong to succeed as a global financial hub and continue as a global financial hub, we need more clarity around the national security legislation. We need to watch how that implementation is put into practice. We call for "One Country, Two Systems."

The position paper advocates against populist and protectionist politics that can disrupt international relations and increase business risk and calls for an open dialogue with China. Can common economic and business interests mend political differences?

I believe they truly can. One thing we're seeing at the moment is a tit-for-tat, "You slap a tariff on, we'll slap a tariff on back" sort of a race to the bottom; and we absolutely advocate against that. We advocate against the political pressures that's been put on at the moment around and certainly the negative media headlines which are dominating around China, but also around the U.S.-China trade tensions. 

So, we really call for a more constructive and engaged approach to China. That's only the way we're going to fight and come back from COVID-19 globally. And for British businesses to succeed here, we need more open and transparent dialogue with China. That's absolutely critical.

Interviewer and script: Abhishek G Bhaya

Video editor: Xie Runjia

Graphic Artist: Li Jingjie

Director: Pang Xinhua

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