Today Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the city of Manchester as part of his notable state trip to the United Kingdom. Mr. Xi had the opportunity to explore main sights of the city like the Etihad Stadium but also academic landmarks such as the recently opened £250 million Graphene Institute, at the very heart of the University of Manchester. After that, he had dinner with Prime Minister David Cameron in the Town Hall before leaving for Manchester Airport, where he boarded his flight back home.
The UK extended the red carpet for this visit, making it one of the most important British state receptions of the twenty-first century. Both delegations have put emphasis on the ‘beginning of a new-era of cooperation’ in the Sino-British relations, with the British pledging to become ‘China’s best ally in the West’ and the Chinese guaranteeing investment in infrastructural projects in the UK.
However, there are a number of challenges associated with such a remarked visit. Geostrategically, this visit certainly represents a major shift in international politics infuriating western forces, especially the US; nationally, it represents a fresh injection of cash to the British economy but a challenge to the government’s foreign policy; and locally, it means the expansion of the Chinese influence in the city and the true beginning of the Northern powerhouse.
It is not a secret the growing expansion of the Chinese community in Manchester and in other cities around the UK. Manchester does not only host the third biggest Chinese community in Europe but also a rapidly growing Chinese student community. China itself is the country that represents the biggest share of international students in the UK. When contacted by The Manchester Magazine, the ‘Manchester Chinese Center’ said that, including university staff, there are around 10,000 Chinese scholars in Greater Manchester universities and colleges. This number is likely to increase. Even though harder entry regulations are expected to come for international students, exceptions made to Chinese students and lower visa prices are expected to happen.
In many ways this is good news for Manchester’s economy and the University of Manchester. A report in the Telegraph showed that international students, of which students coming from China are a significant percentage, have a positive economic input in local economies. Moreover, educational cooperation with a rising power like China will guarantee better understanding between the two nations and a foundation for long-term economic, political and scientific relations.
It is therefore not a surprise that Chancellor George Osborne decided to bring President Xi to Manchester instead of, for example, Birmingham. Of course, there are the strategic visits to the Graphene Institute and the Etihad Stadium – Mr. Xi is a chemical engineer and a big football fan – but it is important to understand the real meaning of this visit. China is expanding itself as a world hegemon and it is doing so in an incredibly smooth way. Investments, loans and other forms of soft power in Latin America, Africa and South East Asia have been part of the Chinese foreign policy, implemented in order to gain political and economic influence in strategic spheres of influence. The continuation of this expansion is needed to deepen its influence in the West, and in order to do so more than just increasing trade and joining the WTO is necessary.
In the case of the UK, Chinese influence is being done in the form of investment and, maybe, a guarantee to reduce cyber-attacks to British economic infrastructure – both goals that the Conservatives were looking forward to achieve if they were reelected. In the North West it is expected that Chinese investment will boost Mr Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse and reduce the North-South division in England.
Reports from the Manchester Evening News say that the Chancellor expects to secure £5 billion in house investment in Greater Manchester, a stake in a £75 billion ‘Atlantic gateway’ project, £800 million for Manchester’s airport expansion and other investments in Liverpool, Leeds and Sheffield. All this investment can be seen as very important investment in the North West and Manchester in particular, areas that have been resurging through a radical transformation from their industrial past. The Government has secured funds for its infrastructure plans; the Chinese have managed to keep expanding their influence in Europe, and both Manchester and the North West will benefit from an important injection of capital.
There are several signs being sent from the UK that might affect the global distribution of power.
Nevertheless, not everyone wins in this equation. The United States of America is maybe the most concerned about the improvement of the Sino-British relations as it certainly questions the especial relationship forged after the Second World War. At the other side of the pond there are strong fears about the British diplomatic shift that would mean to not press China in cyber-security, human rights and crucial conflicts like the Senkaku Islands, because of economic benefits. These are important geostrategic challenges that the UK will have to address with its longstanding allies. Moreover, NGO’s and pressure groups have been criticizing the British diplomatic approach. Some are concerned that the UK will stop demanding a better Chinese record on human rights issues and the resolution of the conflict in Tibet. In response, 10 Downing Street made clear that the improvement of the relations with the Chinese will allow the UK to confront them in a ‘franc and honest way’ about all this issues.
It is uncertain how successful will the new UK-China relationship become after the state visit and what will be the UK’s compromise in exchange for economic and political support from China. Nevertheless, what is clear is that there are several signs being sent from the UK that might affect in the long term the global distribution of power. In a local perspective, Manchester and the North West will see important levels of investment in the next years whilst the University of Manchester will continue growing as a world-recognized institution. Nationally, there will be a relief for the Treasury, as the capital needed to impulse these infrastructure projects pledged in the campaign trail will arrive – but with many foreign policy challenges to be resolved. Internationally, we are seeing new ties being forged between the West and the East but more importantly, a shift from the special relationship between the US and the UK. Mr. Cameron will have to address all this issues whilst considering the comments of many in the West who have called this week’s visit a demonstration of the longstanding post-imperial British attitude of constant accommodation. TMM