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Relations between the UK and China are at a critical juncture, starting with what British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne has described as a “The Golden Age” in 2015 at a time of conflict over technology and geopolitics.
The sweeping new national security law that Beijing imposed on Hong Kong in June is a major problem. Great Britain said the law violates an agreement signed by China and Britain in 1997, when the UK transferred sovereignty from Hong Kong, its former colony, to China. In response to the law, the UK extended British citizenship rights to some Hong Kong residents in July, a move Beijing condemned as foreign interference in internal affairs.
Another point of tension is the UK’s treatment of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies. Great Britain announced in July that UK telecom providers will be banned from using Huawei equipment in the UK’s 5G mobile network, citing national security risks. (Huawei has previously denied claims that its products pose security risks.)
This was the state of play when Caroline Wilson, a diplomat with previous posts in Beijing, Brussels, Moscow and Hong Kong, was asked to become British Ambassador to China in June; and she officially took on the role in October.
“It’s a tough time and sometimes I have to deal with the differences and the controversial and sensitive aspects of the relationship,” Wilson said in an interview with Fortune China’s Most Powerful Women Summit in Shanghai Thursday. “We won’t always be able to agree on everything, but deep down there is so much to do together.”
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Wilson identified public health and climate change as two vital issues she plans to address in her role as Ambassador. She said China could “do more” to ensure that the world’s poorest countries have access to COVID-19 vaccines.
On the vaccine front, “China is doing a tremendous amount in the world,” Wilson said, citing China’s participation in COVAX, a initiative ensure equitable access to coronavirus vaccines. “But we think they could do even more and be even more effective,” she said.
Climate change is another area where she hopes the UK and China can join forces, Wilson said.
In November, she visited The metropolis of Shenzhen in southern China is advocating for increased collaboration on climate change between the UK and China through projects such as a joint technology lab for offshore wind.
“It will be very important to show that we can get global action on climate change,” Wilson said, stressing that the two countries are expected to host major environmental summits in 2021 – the United Nations biodiversity conference in Kunming, China, in May, and the United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, in Glasgow in November.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s September ad that China will aim to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2060 and peak carbon emissions by 2030, Wilson added, “is very, very important” to global climate goals.
Outlining his top priorities, Wilson said the coronavirus pandemic has shown countries need to work together on global issues such as public health and the environment “more than ever”.
“I want to build a strong relationship between the UK and China. To do this I want to show that this is a relationship that is paying off, both for the people in China and for the people of the UK, ”Wilson said.
Nonetheless, she acknowledged that the difficult period in UK-China relations called for “frank dialogue … to allow for the management of differences and diverging views.”
And Wilson, a fluent Mandarin speaker who has switched between English and Chinese while answering questions from the audience, says she is well suited for the challenge.
“Right now the personality of the ambassador is quite important,” she said. This moment in history calls for ‘the human touch – showing that we are all human and that we have more interests in common than [what] divide us, ”she said.
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