by Website Editor, 17 October 2014
China's reform process is “starting to match the rhetoric”, Sir Sebastian Webb KCMG, the UK's Ambassador to China, told an audience in Edinburgh this week. Sir Sebastian also said he was “pretty optimistic for China's growth and reform prospects”, and believes that “the next two decades should be a golden period” for the UK-China relationship.
Sir Sebastian was speaking at an event on 15 October hosted by the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Confucius Institute for Scotland in the University of Edinburgh. This was the first of the Institute's 2014-2015 series of business lectures.
Sir Sebastian giving his talk - photograph courtesy of The Royal Society of Edinburgh
On recent Chinese political developments, Sir Sebastian noted that the new country's new President, Xi Jinping, had taken a “bolder approach” to reform that is “quite inspiring”, especially on a greater role for the market economy. He also said that in his experience of four years working with Chinese policymakers, he found them to be “open and pragmatic”, and keen to learn lessons from around the world. He said they recognised the particular value of talking to the UK because it was the first country to industrialise, and has created stable institutions and regulatory systems.
The Ambassador's high expectations for even greater economic ties between the UK and China was based, he explained, on the fact that the current new phase of Chinese economic development plays to the UK's strengths in, for example, financial services, the service sector in general, education, creative industries and professional services. This is in contrast, he noted, to the first phase of manufacturing industrialisation and infrastructure, which tended to benefit other exporters such as Germany. He identified sectors such as health care, energy, environment, and urban development as having “untapped potential”.
Sir Sebastian also quoted a number of interesting statistics about the UK-China relationship, to demonstrate that the two countries' economies are becoming more complementary :
- UK exports to China have doubled in the last five years, at a time when exports from other European countries have fallen
- there has been more Chinese investment in the UK in the last two years than in the previous 30 years
- some 490,000 Chinese tourists visited the UK in 2013, a rise of 20% on the previous year
Sir Sebastian talking to audience members after his presentation - photograph courtesy of
The Royal Society of Edinburgh
However, the Ambassador also noted some risks and challenges that might hinder China's development in the next few years. These include the country's rising debt-to-GDP ratio ; security concerns in the South and East China Seas, many arising from unresolved differences between China and neighbours going back to the middle of the 20th century ; and the difficulties China faces in becoming more fully integrated into the global economic and political systems.
Sir Sebastian's talk was followed by a lively Q&A session touching on a wide range of issues including UK support for Chinese legal reform, the UK visa system and climate change, before he joined audience members for more informal discussions at a networking reception.
Sir Sebastian took office in January 2010, and is due to hand over to his successor, Barbara Woodward, in early 2015. While this has been his first Ambassadorial appointment, he has held a succession of other senior appointments with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, some with a strong China focus. He learnt Mandarin in the early 1990s, before serving in the Joint Liaison Group in the run-up to the handover of Hong Kong. His other China-related work has included a posting in Washington following US foreign policy in Asia, and latterly he was the FCO's Asia-Pacific Director.