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China, UK 'truly interdependent' on threshold of golden era

By Liam Byrne ( Updated: 2015-10-22 23:24

President Xi Jinping's visit comes at a genuinely auspicious time. It comes as our two countries are finally poised on the threshold of a golden era in Sino-UK relations, as we start to become truly interdependent.

It has been a long time coming. But as every builder knows, the foundations of a house can take many years to put in place. But once built, the house on top can rise fast.

For the last decade, our relationship building has moved from strength to strength. I've watched it first hand; helping kick off the Economic & Finance Dialogue, co-founding the UK-China Young Leaders Roundtable and helping lead the Leadership for the Future forum.

What I've seen year in, year out is a UK-China relationship that has now moved decisively from the ceremonial to the conversational. It is remarkable today for its breadth and depth. On the one hand, we have good strategic discussions amongst leaders but just as important we now have the People to People dialogue to spread the conversation far and wide, most importantly to our children and students - the leaders of tomorrow - and to the field of culture which is vital if we are to build a genuine, rich, vibrant mutual understanding. The announcement of a new tour of China for some of the British Museum's greatest objects is a wonderful example of how serious we have become.

For many years, we've speculated that we may be about to move into an era of genuinely complementary development. This is certainly now true. But not in the way some predicted.

Five years ago, many forecast that as China's economy developed and rebalanced away from exports and towards consumer growth, great new markets for European firms would open up. To an extent that's true. But the real win-win in the UK-China space will be in the field of innovation, technology and enterprise - as we both aim to accelerate the growth of 'good' jobs, paying the kind of good wages our citizens aspire to.

Thanks to the huge investment of the current Five Year Plan, China is set to become the world's leading science superpower. Its science budget will outstrip Europe this year or next, and overtake America by 2019. Already four out of ten of the world' top ten tech firms are Chinese and over the last two years, a wave of enterprise has transformed the number of Chinese start-ups as people heed Premier Li's advice that 'everyone can be an innovator'.

This is a huge opportunity for the UK and China to grow together. The UK has been one of the most inventive and entrepreneurial nations in the world. Our scientists are amongst the most efficient on earth and are some of the greatest collaborators with Chinese scientists. Chinese firms like Huawei already find the UK one of the most fertile places to think, innovate and test. Our universities are full of over 100,000 Chinese students and scientists - and numbers are rising fast. We are now at the stage where UK firms know they must be in China, because quite simply they will learn more doing business there than anywhere else on earth.

Great entrepreneurs make history by creating new futures. And over the years to come, UK and Chinese innovators in all fields of life have an extraordinary chance to do things together.

It will take some new ways of working. New, bigger bi-national research funds. Our cities, our regions, our mayors, our universities all need deeper, stronger, smarter links. Immigration rules should allow free movement of students and scientists. These are all areas where real progress can be made.

Finally President Xi will find here in the UK leaders who now genuinely believe in a stronger partnership with China. When I published my book on the future of UK-China relations a couple of years ago, I called it Turning to Face the East. My argument was simple. The 'larger trend' as Premier Wen once called it, is creating the Asian century. European politicians have to stop focusing their attention simply across the Atlantic. They have to start looking down the new silk roads to China. What's remarkable is that this is now beginning to happen. Both my, and George Osborne's, children now study Mandarin. British politicians spend far more time visiting all corners of China not simply the coast. Chinese culture has a new popular appeal. Chinese investment is beginning to spread decisively out of London and across our country. We are quite simply far more used to working together - and we're good at it.

Deep in the archives of the Royal Society, the home of British science, are some of the oldest records of UK-China research, dating back to the Macartney embassy in 1792-94. They are a powerful reminder of how long we have worked together. But we're only just getting started.

The author is a member of parliament in the UK, and was Chief Secretary to the Treasury in Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Labour government.

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