World / Opinion

Brexit or not, China doesn't care either way

By Chris Peterson (China Daily Europe) Updated: 2015-10-04 09:33

The perceived brutality of the European Union's handling of the Greek crisis, and now the apparent lack of a coordinated EU response to the streams of migrants heading into Eastern Europe from Iraq, Syria and all points east - all this is beginning to weigh heavily on British voters' minds ahead of the promised referendum on EU membership.

And then there's China.

Received wisdom is that Britain would fade into obscurity if it didn't have the strength of being part of the EU trading bloc behind it.

That's wrong, it would seem. US President Barack Obama has publicly said it would be much better for the US if Britain stayed in the EU, and acted as a voice for US interests.

But there are senior Chinese officials who disagree. Just a year ago Wang Hongzhang, chairman of China Construction Bank, told the BBC in an interview that London's position as the leading center for financial services in Europe would not be affected by any decision on European Union membership.

"Whether the UK will stay in the EU or not will not do any harm to trade and economic ties or financial relations between the UK and China," he said.

Pretty unambiguous that, coming from a senior Chinese figure. And I suspect he's not alone.

What about those ties? One of the things Chancellor George Osborne wants to cement during his recent visit to China is the recognition of London as the offshore center of choice for the renminbi. The UK and China are also in the middle of major talks on Chinese involvement in Britain's next generation of nuclear power stations.

Ministers traveling with Osborne in China have made it crystal clear that they want a Chinese-designed reactor in place in the UK, which because of the tight regulatory role of the UK watchdog would give China's nuclear industry the boost it is seeking.

Investment from China into Britain is bigger than that into France, Germany and Italy combined, although China is only the sixth biggest export market for the UK.

No mention in those projects of EU involvement - if China wants to do business with the UK directly, it will. Already the companies that make China's high-speed trains are setting up representative offices here, their eyes on Britain's ambitious plan to link the southeast of the country with the so-called Northern Powerhouse.

Meanwhile, Britain dived straight in and became a founding member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a fact not unnoticed by China and a move that irritated the US.

All this is a long way since the coolness of 2012 - Britain and China are now entering what is being hailed by both sides as a golden era in relations, culminating in October's state visit by President Xi Jinping.

Meanwhile, back in Europe, things are crumbling. Many in Britain disliked the way Germany drove a hard bargain over Greece's indebtedness, meaning that country will live under austerity for years to come because Germany and the EU, determined to save the euro, would not entertain any debt forgiveness.

It gets worse - the sight of thousands of people, both refugees and so-called economic migrants, fleeing conflict in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan in the east, and various African countries to the south, has prompted many commentators in the UK to ask why there hasn't been a coherent EU reaction to the biggest humanitarian crisis in Europe in decades.

So far a proposal by EU President Jean-Claude Juncker for member countries to accept a total of 120,000 people under a quota system has fallen on deaf ears. Germany, Hungary, Croatia, Austria and Greece have become the route for those seeking sanctuary and a better life in, usually, Germany. Hungary is building barbed wire fences around its borders, and Austria and Germany have introduced temporary border restrictions - so much for the Schengen agreement on free travel.

EU heads of government are meeting on the issue for the first time recently, after a summer of chaos, recrimination, death and confusion on Europe's borders.

Britons are looking at all this and many are thinking, is it worth being an EU member?

OK, so the opinion polls right now are showing 60 percent in favor of staying. But much more dithering by the EU, and some here may start to think Chinese Construction Bank's Wang may well have a point.

The author is managing editor of China Daily Europe, based in London. Contact the writer at


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