The call comes after UK prime minister earlier this week warned that the “golden era” of relations with the country had reached an end.
“We’re taking a longer-term view on China, strengthening our resilience and protecting our economic security,” UK prime minister Rishi Sunak told attendees at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet on November 28, adding that the UK will “evolve” its approach to China.
It will focus on “robust pragmatism” and the UK will look to deepen ties with “like-minded allies around the world”.
“Let’s be clear, the so-called ‘golden era’ is over,” he said.
For Matt Burney, British Council China director, the unsurprising statement could have been worse.
“It’s quite useful really for Rishi Sunak to draw a line under it by talking in terms of ‘robust pragmatism’. This is a lot more helpful – and meaningful in terms of safe engagement – than some of the rhetoric that could have been used around, for example, defining China as purely a threat,” he told The PIE.
The golden era of relations is widely accepted as the time under former PM David Cameron, who was in power in the UK from 2010 to 2016.
In comparison, some parts of the bilateral relationship are now stronger, according to Burney. While political relationships have traditionally been “episodic”, the education relationship is different.
“I point you to the education relationship, which is as strong as ever… [We have] to be really very careful about defining our bilateral relationship purely through the lens of political rhetoric,” he said.
“We’ve got to look at the UK-China relationship beyond the political. When we look at it through the lens of trade and of culture and education and the people-to-people side of things, it’s actually as strong as ever it’s been.”
Director of the UK Research Innovation in China Daniel Brooker agreed that the rhetoric needs decoupling from reality, in a session at British Council’s Going Global conference in Singapore.
“It’s important often just to remind people around the statistics of why our relationship with China, certainly from our research, is too important to ignore, too big to fail,” he said.
“China is now a science superpower, it’s the world’s second biggest spender on R&D, it has 25% of the world’s R&D workforce. It has spent heavily on increasing its research budgets over the last 5-10 years. It’s already reaching its 2.4% target, percent of GDP, which is the UK aspiration.”
A rough calculation by the British Council has estimated that in 2021, Chinese students – in tuition fees and living costs alone – contributed some £5.4bn to the UK economy, Leina Shi, director education China, added.
“Data shows that the overall pie for Chinese students studying abroad is shrinking. However, the UK has really proved popular above our weight, so actually our number of inbound students from China has been increasing, but on the price of perhaps some of our other competitors,” she said, noting in particular the US.
“This is an opportunity to really get smart in working with China”
“It would be naive to think that China is risk free. Our interlocutors are keen to remain as apolitical as possible,” Burney added.
For UK universities, now is the time to “really get China ready”, and build up the institutional readiness to engage, Shi continued.
“This is an opportunity to really get smart in working with China… [and] for universities to build up their own expertise to understand how to work with China.
“The most important [thing] is to recognise China’s strengths as a collaborator for research. The rise of China in the world rankings of universities presents valuable opportunities in postgraduate and research collaborations for UK universities. I think the next era is moving from student recruitment into research collaboration.”