Britain eyes the east as the economic way forward

Stephan Shakespeare
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Tata steel's job cuts will resonate with people’s deeply held concern about the decline of our manufacturing industries (Source: Getty)
The British are a pragmatic nation, if attitudes to China are anything to go by. We Brits believe that China is the great emerging economic superpower, and despite recent wobbles – a slowdown and a stock market crash – that’s not going to change.

We see China as overtaking the European Union as our main trading partner within the next two decades.

While Americans struggle with anxieties about challenges to its superpower status, most British people have long ago said goodbye to notions of empire and are content to see Britain behave as a trading nation with economic partnerships across all continents.

Of those who have an opinion, people even tend to believe (37 per cent to 26 per cent) that fast economic growth in China will help western economies rather than replace them over the next 20 years.

On specific controversies however, people can become more easily outraged.

The announcement that Tata steel is cutting jobs will resonate with people’s deeply held concern about the decline of our manufacturing industries.

People are also much more negative when asked about direct Chinese investment in British infrastructure, such as railways and nuclear power, and an unarguable 71 per cent think that China’s human rights record is a proper topic for Prime Minister David Cameron to bring up this week with visiting President Xi Jinping.

So, like all diplomacy, this state visit comes down to careful handling and balance.

In our survey, we forced people to make a choice between promoting human rights in China and developing our trade relations. The larger group (38 per cent) prioritised developing trade relations, but it is close: A third prioritised human rights.

There is public support for the Osborne Doctrine insofar as it means looking east for new economic opportunities.

But the public will want to see ongoing reassurance that the government is not behaving naively with its new Chinese friends.

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