Xi's British visit the start of 'golden era'

Chinese state media and observers have gone into overdrive over President Xi Jinping's visit to Britain, hailing it as the start of a "new golden era" between the two countries that could offer a new political model for ties between China and the West.

But experts say Beijing is also looking to Britain for opportunities as its own economy falters: It wants its railway, energy, aviation, and telecommunications industries to secure a footing in the British market.

Peking University foreign policy analyst Wang Dong said China sees Britain as a "role model" Western partner that is willing to engage Beijing to build what Mr Xi has termed a "global comprehensive strategic partnership".

"It represents a break from the outdated, rigid mindset where Western states choose to focus on differences rather than on mutual respect and win-win co-operation," he said. "This is a symbolic breakthrough for ties between China and the West."

Mr Xi's four-day Britain visit is the first by a Chinese head of state in 10 years. It began on Tuesday, when Mr Xi was welcomed with a 41-gun salute before being driven in a gilded carriage drawn by white horses to Buckingham Palace. Images of the pageantry, including meetings with the Queen and members of the royal family, have been splashed across the Chinese media.

State-run Global Times said, in an editorial this week, that Mr Xi's visit will have global implications, with ties between China and the Western world set to experience "a special breakthrough".

It added that the term "golden age" - used by both British and Chinese officials to describe ties - is one of the most optimistic descriptions Western nations have used.

With Mr Xi bringing about £40 billion (S$86 billion) worth of deals to Britain, some experts also say Beijing is dangling the economic carrot to convince more states to soften their stance towards China.

Professor Niv Horesh, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, said using economic clout to advance geopolitical aims is not unique to China.

"Their challenge is, however, in convincing Westerners that Chinese investment does not constitute a threat to their national security," he told The Straits Times.

Ties between China and the West have been strained by issues such as human rights, Tibet and Beijing's policy in Hong Kong.

Britain's ties with China, for instance, hit a rough patch after Prime Minister David Cameron met the Dalai Lama in May 2012. But London's decision to join the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in March despite American opposition has warmed ties.

Sino-European expert Philippe Le Corre, a fellow at United States think-tank Brookings Institution, said China may also hope to use London as a "go between" between itself and the US. It remains to be seen if this strategy will work, he noted.

He cautioned that there is a risk for both China and Britain to have publicised this week's visit so much. "What if things don't work out as planned for the investments? What about human resource problems, individual rights issues and cross-cultural problems between China and European countries?" he asked.


This article was first published on September 23, 2015.
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