London (Reuters) – When British finance minister George Osborne told Chinese students his daughter studied Mandarin during a visit to Beijing in 2013, it was a clear personal bid to heal strained ties.
Fast forward two years and Osborne’s revelation and his dogged pursuit of better ties have hit the mark, helping to attract billions of pounds in potential investment to Britain in what China calls a “golden time” in relations.
A visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to London next week will be in much the same spirit, with officials keen to embrace a much friendlier relationship with Britain which, they say, trumps ties with other Western countries.
The tone of the state visit, during which Xi will dine at Buckingham Palace, will be in marked contrast to his trip last month to the United States, where pomp and ceremony failed to mask friction over cyber theft and China’s moves in Asian maritime disputes.
China’s ambassador to Britain, Liu Xiaoming, said Xi’s visit on Oct. 19-23 marked a new milestone for the China-Britain relationship.
“The ‘Golden Time’ is dawning but it has not come overnight,” he told the Diplomat magazine, which his aides showed to reporters at a meeting this month.
In a mark of respect, Xi will be visiting only Britain on his trip – a departure from the traditional practice of taking in several destinations during long-haul trips.
And while both sides will emphasise their warm relations, analysts caution there may be little concrete behind the words with final deals on nuclear energy projects and high-speed rail links in Britain a long way off.
“I’m sure there’ll be all sorts of contracts lined up for signature … but most of those will be statements of intent,” said Rod Wye, associate fellow of the Asia Programme at independent policy institute, Chatham House.
Xi’s visit could include an anouncement that Beijing will issue government debt in renminbi in London, making it the first financial centre outside China to offer its sovereign debt, the Financial Times reported.
For Britain, success in relations with China is largely measured in the change of tone since Prime Minister David Cameron angered Beijing in 2012 by meeting the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader whom China denounces as a dangerous separatist. The Dalai Lama denies the charge.
Osborne’s visit a year later was seen as an attempt to repair bridges.
But it was his trip to China last month that secured pledges of investment and sealed the breakthrough with the Global Times, an influential Chinese tabloid, praising his “etiquette” in not raising the “human rights issue”.
Osborne was criticised by human rights activists for not using a trip to the Xinjiang region to draw attention to the treatment of Muslim Uighurs. Hundreds have been killed in violence in the region, blamed by Beijing on Islamist militants.
He said, according to local media, that he had raised human rights issues as part of a “broader conversation with China”, and British officials, who deal with China, say that lobbying behind the scenes achieves far more than public hectoring.
The uncritical standpoint has won fans beyond politics, with British culture and education becoming a firm favourite in China’s newly emerging middle class, who often download illegally widely popular television dramas such as Sherlock.
In a speech to the International Monetary Fund this month, Osborne underlined his approach by saying Britain would lose jobs if it cut itself off from the Chinese economy, the world’s second-largest.
Some commentators say his drive comes from a personal desire to know more of China, a country he travelled around when he was in his 20s. Others have suggested ties with Beijing have become his ‘big idea’ to help propel him to the top of the ruling Conservative Party when Cameron steps down some time before 2020.
Either way, since he returned to Britain last month, he and his colleagues in government have trumpeted the trip’s successes such as its economic deals and social programmes, including one close to his heart – more Mandarin tuition in British schools.
Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told the annual Conservative Party conference this month that Xi’s visit and another by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in November showed that “Britain is open for business with the world”.
But some critics fear that Osborne is giving too much away.
Britain has offered a 2 billion pounds ($3 billion) of initial support for a new nuclear power station in southwest England, but is waiting for an investment from Beijing, and has invited bids for contracts to build a high-speed rail line.
Osborne will hope this trip will see China sign on the dotted line, but some analysts say he may have to wait.
Wye said firm deals were possible, but: “The Chinese are not just going to throw cheques around for nothing.”
“They are going to want certainly a good return on their investment … both in economic terms and political terms, so they are going to drive a pretty hard bargain.”
(additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; editing by Giles Elgood)