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Where does the UK’s relationship with China go from here? Over the past eight years Manchester China Forum (MCF) has been at the leading edge of the city’s engagement with the world’s biggest growth economy. The results of this can be seen in improved air connectivity, stronger cultural and education ties, as well as significant growth in Chinese investment including in major developments such as Airport City Manchester and Northern Gateway. 

In the introduction to this series, Rhys Whalley, Executive Director of MCF, explains what a change in the geopolitical weather could mean for Manchester and the North West region, and what productive collaboration with China might look like in the future.

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What role does China play in achieving the idea of “Global Britain”?

Despite recent geopolitical trends, we find ourselves in an increasingly interconnected world. China is and will remain a critical function of this global community. Maintaining a pragmatic and constructive relationship with China is likely to be one of the most important challenges of the Global Britain vision and one that should in no way be underestimated. 

Equally, China’s investment in science and technology and digital innovation means that it will play an important role in helping to shape many of the solutions to key global challenges. Much of China's progress over the last few decades has been shaped by an ability to look at international best practice and say, “these are the things that we think will work, so we're going to take those concepts but apply them in a way that is suited to the local environment.”

At the moment, I don't feel that here in the UK or elsewhere in the West, we look at China in the same way. But there are plenty of examples, particularly in digital infrastructure and also physical infrastructure, where we can take a serious look at what China has done and ask how we can extract learning from their experience and adapt that in a way that it could work in this part of the world.

There is no question that at the heart of a credible Global Britain vision has to be a comprehensive strategy of engagement with the world’s key growth market and one that accounts for a fifth of the world’s population. We are already incredibly fortunate to have institutions that play a critically important role in helping to educate and shape the views of much of its future leadership. Educational collaboration must remain a critical cornerstone of the relationship.  

Right now in China there is a serious overhaul taking place to improve the level of its vocational education. We're going through a similar sort of process to ensure that skills are adapted to the industries of the future. Certainly, if you look at the UK’s green economy, be that electric vehicles or renewable energy, there is huge demand for the skills needed to support the growth of these industries over the coming decades.

Historically, Russell Group institutions have done incredibly well in terms of recruitment and R&D partnerships with China. But reform of vocational education training could present opportunities for smaller universities that in the past may not have had such success in attracting Chinese students and investment. There are also really interesting opportunities beyond universities, for technical colleges, for example, to create apprenticeships in partnership with institutions in China and transfer skills to develop green industries in the UK.

The idea of Global Britain has to be about attracting top global talent, including from key markets like China. Universities have a responsibility to ensure that the benefits of attracting talent and skills are spread widely across the UK economy through funded research projects that are plugged into specific sectors and industries.

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Why has Manchester and the North West seen such success in its engagement with China?

I think Manchester has a pretty unique set of credentials. Sports, culture and education have provided a massive boost to the region in terms of its profile and brand recognition. But the city is also small enough to get things done very quickly – to bring key partners together to collaborate and work strategically, be they the airport, local government, university partners, major developers or the local football clubs. The reason MCF has been successful is because you've had buy-in from these key partners who recognize that this sort of initiative is generationally important. This means ensuring that we've got the right tools to be able to navigate and support a constructive relationship with the world's most important growth economy.

Take, for example, the airport, who recognized at a very early stage the critical importance that connectivity plays in delivering downstream benefits across wider socio-economic priorities including trade and investment, education and cultural collaboration. All of these areas benefit dramatically once you're able to put Manchester on the physical map. So, pre-Covid at Beijing airport when you see Manchester up on the screens, psychologically that has an impact. It established Manchester as an important city in a UK and wider European context.

The 10-year projection for the impact on the visitor economy as a result of the Manchester-Beijing air route was estimated to be around £260 million. In the end that was delivered in two years, including a 38% growth in the number of Chinese visiting the region – a higher growth rate than London. And when you throw into the mix the Airport City development, which is a joint venture between Manchester Airports Group and Beijing Construction Engineering Group, you can see there is a really strong correlation between securing routes and wider downstream economic impacts.

Could the same thing happen today? Whilst we have to recognize that things have changed somewhat, I certainly think there are significant opportunities that remain. There's still strong appetite from Chinese investors to partner with local UK developers, but it depends on which areas you’re looking at.

The UK government has made it very clear that it sees China as a critical partner, for example in its climate change agenda. So, we need to be partnering with experts and investors from China who are willing to help make projects happen. The reality is that opportunities exist but their nature has evolved and must continue to adapt with the times.

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How can the UK can manage divergences of interest?

That’s an incredibly challenging question. First and foremost, I think it's important to focus on a pragmatic and constructive approach to engagement with China. There are clearly areas where we're going to have to agree to disagree and will need greater intervention from multilateral institutions to navigate these issues. We cannot however abandon attempts at global cooperation. Never has this been more evident than the ongoing climate change negotiations in Glasgow. If we are to protect our planet, we must rise above these challenges and recognize the importance of a collaborative and constructive approach to tackling these most urgent of crises.

Part of it comes back to education and understanding – actually having exposure to China on the ground and learning how things work there, because like it or not China is going to be a critical component shaping our global future. At the heart of this must be our commitment to invest in understanding. Not only do we need to ensure that today’s leaders have a strong grasp of China, we also need to enhance our investment in exposing our future generations to this critically important market. China send hundreds of thousands of students to the UK each year whilst the numbers heading in the opposite direction are miniscule. This imbalance has to be addressed full on.

I think the UK government needs to take a hard look at its long-term game. As I say, there are going to be areas where we must agree to disagree. But we need to be able to conduct ourselves in a way that ensures we're able to maintain core respect in the relationship. We have to recognize that we can't have a relationship that is based on a pick-and-mix approach. At the moment I think the UK has a window of opportunity. China still sees it as being strategically important but there's a fine balance to be struck and there needs to be give and take on both sides.

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Why are projects such as Shared Futures important?

In today's geopolitical climate it's critically important that we're investing in enhancing our understanding of complex markets like China. The recent Integrated Review clearly states the critical need to invest in enhanced tools of understanding. I think that should be holistic in its approach and absolutely should focus on ensuring that we empower the next generation with the right tools to understand partners in China and elsewhere around the world. Part and parcel of that is getting stories out there from people who have genuine insights and understanding of the China market. At the moment too much of the narrative in the public domain is being shaped by people who do not understand China and have little to zero direct experience of it. Projects like Shared Futures, even if in a modest way, offer a counter to that.

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