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As the geopolitics become more challenging, many UK universities are pulling back from new partnerships with China. There’s a strong perception that it is too risky. There’s a lack of clarity on government strategy. A concern that either UK or Chinese government actions may further curtail activities with little warning. There are, entirely legitimate, security concerns. There’s a lack of new government funding for research partnerships. And after 3 years of limited travel, building on an existing dearth of UK expertise about China, there’s a general lack of knowledge about how to build new partnerships at all.

Despite these challenges, here are four reasons why it is critical for UK universities and research intensive organisations to continue investing in knowledge about China and developing robust strategies and governance processes to manage Chinese partnerships.

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Reason 1

UK government and other reports dating back to 1899 have noted that there is a persistent lack of capacity to understand China and work with Chinese partners effectively in the UK. You just have to look at Mandarin proficiency in the Foreign Office and general population, or the number of UK businesses present in China (~400) compared to, for example, Germany (2,300). Such a chronic problem isn’t going to be solved overnight, but universities are long term institutions that have the resources, and responsibility, to build knowledge and capacity across the country.

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Reason 2

A few years ago during the Golden Era, UK Government policy was to promote a wide range of partnerships with China. There was talk of collaboration in not just the global challenges, but AI development, and even graphene if you go back to 2015. UK institutions saw a potential gold mine of opportunities and sent delegations of leadership and academics to build new partnerships – often without a very robust strategy in place to guide those partnerships. Now that the UK Government position has changed – and become more ambiguous – its actually more important to invest in understanding China in order to avoid the potential reputational and governance risks associated with the new oversight of research and education partnerships.

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Reason 3

The Worst Case Scenario: Lets suppose there is an armed military altercation in the South China Sea sometime in the next 4 years. The UK and it’s allies take the decision to sever all research collaboration with China for the duration of the incident and it’s aftermath. Aside from the enormous complexity of that process, what happens next? Either the world settles in to a new Cold War system and/or, at some point, we will need to find a way to talk and bridge those gaps once again. Either way expertise and knowledge of China will be vital. Ideally such knowledge and skills could be used to avoid conflict entirely, or at least to avoid prolonging it. But if not, they will be critical to the eventual rapprochement.

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Reason 4

The More Probable Scenario: Things continue largely as they are. Partnerships are likely restricted to a narrower range of disciplines and research topics. Certain topics are absolutely off the cards. But ultimately the need for collaboration on climate change, pandemic prevention, food security, the energy transition, AI regulations, and other global goods require careful negotiation, strategy and partnership. This is exactly the situation UKRI faced for at least a decade when negotiating co-funding agreements. Every year we would gently but firmly redirect the discussion away from certain topics and towards those more aligned with government priorities and risk appetite. This skill is one all UK institutions should cultivate – identifying strategic priorities and negotiating effectively to achieve them.

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In Conclusion

Short of a major military altercation, China isn’t going to return to Mao-Era isolation, and it’s scale means that engagement is both inevitable and in the national interestas stated by many UK Government figures in recent years. So while things are challenging, investing in the appropriate strategy and governance process to build secure and sustainable partnerships with China remains of critical importance to UK institutions.

If your institution needs independent, pragmatic expertise about China, why not get in touch to arrange an initial consultation call to discuss your needs and find out how I can help.