In the years following the shock Brexit decision in 2016, policymakers in the United Kingdom have been seeking to realize various competing visions of the country’s role in the world. The so-called Singapore-on-Thames concept, for example, once sought for Britain to play the role of global trading giant, unburdened by European regulation and bureaucracy.
More recently, the British government unveiled its 2022 Digital Strategy, an updated version of a plan previously launched in 2017, designed to enhance the UK’s technological innovation and build a modern data-driven economy suited to a post-Brexit world.
Crucial to these ambitions will be the UK’s relationship with China – its third-largest trading partner and a major rising tech power.
“It is foreseeable that under the global wave of digital and green transformation, the complementary advantages between Chinese and British technology companies will create broad cooperation opportunities,” said John Edwards, the UK Trade Commissioner for China, at a conference last month on smart technology.
Despite a series of considerable roadblocks, efforts are being made this year, which marks the 50th anniversary of formal diplomatic relations between the two countries, to shore up their technological partnership.
Cambridge-based information technology company Aveva, for example, has been ramping up its operations in China lately. The manager of the country’s China division, Wan Shiping, recently stressed the potential role played by the firm in helping firms implement emissions reduction strategies amid Beijing’s broader goal of reaching a carbon peak by 2030.
As reported by China Daily, Wan said that Aveva would strive “to enable faster and more precise decision-making for the country’s energy behemoths, helping industries to boost operational delivery and sustainability.”
Casting doubt over future cooperation, however, is the ongoing Conservative Party leadership contest, following the resignation of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week. An analysis by Chatham House anticipates that the tough foreign policy rhetoric adopted by Johnson towards China – including within the technological arena – will likely persist in any successor’s government.
Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee Tom Tugendhat, who has formally declared his candidacy to replace Johnson, led the release of a report on July 8 subtitled: “Putting tech at the heart of UK foreign policy.” In the document, the authors call for a “defensive strategy of tighter China-oriented restrictions including geolocation data, social media platforms and consumer devices like smartphones.”
Along similar lines, the recently published UK Digital Strategy emphasized the need to strengthen the country’s expertise in the so-called “foundational deep technologies of the future,” including artificial intelligence, computer chips and quantum computing.
Amid the ongoing worldwide shortage, semiconductors have emerged in recent years as a main focal point of modern geopolitical contention. One particular sticking point for London has been the decision to approve or deny the acquisition of the Newport Wafer Lab in Wales by a subsidiary of a Chinese firm.
News emerged last week that the British government has delayed its decision by a further two months as unease about the deal lingers.
UK Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, the official responsible for the decision, claimed at a recent event that “China is very actively…trying to hoover up semiconductor assets.”
Kwarteng added, “In my free trade days, I would have said ‘Let them do it…It’s a free market.’ But actually, in this world we do have powers, particularly in the [National Security and Investment Act], to call some of these deals in.”
Meanwhile, the UK has also served as a springboard for some Chinese firms aiming to expand internationally. TikTok, the global social media sensation owned by Beijing-based tech juggernaut ByteDance, launched its livestream e-commerce drive in the UK last year, aiming to build on the success of the app’s Chinese mainland counterpart, Douyin.
However, following a period of lackluster consumer interest, as well as high-profile coverage of a workplace culture clash, the short video streaming platform has reportedly abandoned its plans to expand TikTok shop in Europe and the United States.
Attempts to paint a rosier picture of the two countries’ technological relationship have been pursued by the British diplomatic team in China. John Edwards, the UK Trade Commissioner for the country, mentioned recently that “41% of the UK’s total service exports to China and 30% of the UK’s imports from China are based on data empowerment, so we should deepen our understanding of our respective data innovation technologies and methods through active exchanges.”
The UK’s official digital strategy released last month declares: “The UK will be the best place in the world to start and grow a technology business.” Amid mounting competition for emerging digital industries between major powers, however, that may be easier said than done.