It has been a cliché for some years now, that Britain needs to find a
way to make more of China and its economy if we are going to find our feet in a
changing world. The current trade position compared to our nearest peers is
startling, with exports to China far below Germany and even France, and with
the worst trade deficit amongst all the large European economies.
As yet however, the UK has not demonstrated a particularly coherent
strategy as to how to go about rectifying this – in fact one might argue there
has been no real “China policy” at all. Part of this may be due to the structure of our economy, with its
focus on services; but another entirely preventable limitation is the mentality
which pervades some British business, government and the FCO.
Even for those who are keen on confronting the China dilemma, there
is a complacency. For instance one theory prevalent in some circles is that
Britain, although disadvantaged in this current cycle of Chinese
industrialization, is well poised to make the most of the following phase,
where China’s domestic markets will begin to demand services. According to this
view, Britain’s time will inevitably come, with a little patience, and the
strong position of Germany and others is but temporary.
The problem is this: in the history of post-war development, there
has been no example of any country successfully migrating from lower to
upper-middle income whilst also maintaining an open-mind towards foreign companies.
Typically a developing country will begin to expose its manufacturing base to
competition from abroad, but will continue to protect its services. Singapore
is an example of this, as is Malaysia; in Japan and Korea foreigners barely get
a look in. India is notoriously difficult to enter as a market and vast swathes
of South America area as protectionist now as they ever were.
The sectors which are therefore unlikely to see much progress in any
of the BRIC+2  markets include the cornerstones of the FTSE 100: financial services (including
banking, insurance and fund management); telecoms; utilities; and engineering
contractors. In such areas overseas entrants to the market will only ever be
allowed a small part to play given the sensitive nature of the industry. Even
retailers will face some difficulties in establishing themselves, as Carrefour
and Walmart are discovering now.
If Britain’s strategy is to wait for the opening of China’s economy
to those same large entities and multi-nationals which it has been supporting
throughout the last two decades, we might as well give up. Some advocates of
the “next cycle” theory are perhaps forget that Britain’s service sector rode a
unique wave of American-imposed liberalization in Europe and elsewhere in the
post-war period. This was inadvertent, but helpful; however the US will not be
able to aid us again with the new powers as the Washington Consensus reaches
its geopolitical limits. Britain simply will not be able to approach China,
India or others in the same way that it expanded previously.
Instead, the solution to Britain’s export problem actually lies in
the same reforms which we should be looking at domestically, as the public
begins to stir in favour of a “post-financial age” in the economy. Our country
has plenty of successful smaller enterprises in IT, biotechnology and other
more niche markets. These are rarely dominated by large multi-nationals; they
are instead composed of the SMEs which compete with Germany’s Mittelstand or the Japanese chuken kigyo – the backbone of any
successful and well-balanced economy.
British policy, therefore, should be twofold: at home, the
government needs to support SMEs in every way, from tax breaks to financing to
education policy. This is becoming widely recognized and the Conservative Party
already pays lip service accordingly. Additionally though, our foreign policy
needs to focus on commerce (which is happening), but more specifically leverage
key high-value industries and their SME constituents, even if this sometimes
means abandoning large multi-nationals to fend for themselves. There are
limited gains to be made in championing Tesco or AMEC or RBS; there is a much
greater benefit in helping SMEs who can eventually export successfully.
As a country, we have to have faith that we can actually produce
things which others want to buy; and though Britain has never been the home of
faultlessly high quality, it is nonetheless the bastion of creativity and
innovation – qualities that are as exportable as cars, machinery and luxury goods.
Our current appalling trade deficit with China is not insurmountable, but it
will not be rectified with blind faith in the conventional “big business” model.
Our foreign and trade policies need to be as inventive as the goods
we want to export, and it needs to start with a coherent plan for China, as
well the other BRIC+ countries. Actually having a articulate policy would be
helpful; and only then will Britain’s talents reach their full potential.
 BRIC+ is still fluid in its definition but would likely include
such emerging markets as Indonesia, Vietnam, Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Colombia and