David Cameron in China: Keeping the British end up? Or just a waste?

The Prime Minister is leading the largest ever trade delegation to China. But what value do these junkets really deliver?

The choreography of the modern trade mission is familiar. There's the photo opportunity on the steps of the plane, the press conference and then the official dinner. Several days of frenetic travel across multiple cities are punctuated by much pressing of flesh and then it's back home – until the next expensive junket. But what do these caravans of political and commercial clout really achieve? Does the modern trade mission do any good?

Some might say that the results are obvious. In October George Osborne gave the green light to the deal allowing Chinese firms to invest in the Hinkley Point nuclear plant, during his visit to China. Similarly, yesterday, as David Cameron arrived in the country, Standard Chartered and the Agricultural Bank of China signed an agreement to start renminbi clearing services in the UK for the first time.

Yet both deals had been in gestation for a long time. Wouldn't they have happened anyway, without the arrival of a senior minister? Lord Sassoon, chairman of the China-Britain Business Council, says it's an impossible question to answer: "I think these missions often bring to a head or accelerate things that might have happened... But it's difficult to say. I'm quite sure these high level events do act as a focus to get deals done."

Sonny Leong, a publisher who has been on official trade delegations to China in the past, is sceptical of their value to large firms. "If you are a multinational blue chip, frankly how much it helps is questionable because you would have local representative offices," he said. "Maybe it's matter of the chief executives shaking a few hands and drinking a few maotais [an expensive Chinese liquor]."

There may be some value for large firms in subtly demonstrating their political connections too. Sir Andrew Witty of GlaxoSmithKline, which has been accused of corruption in China, is on the current trip. It can't hurt the drugs company to be witnessed by the Chinese as being firmly in the protective prime ministerial fold.

What about the larger economic picture? Mr Cameron said the UK is "uniquely placed" to make the case for an EU-China trade deal. But arguably Germany, the top European exporter to China, should be taking the lead.

One of the firms on the jaunt is the tiny Westaway Sausages of Devon. Another is the small online commerce site, Nuji. Their presence seems incongruous alongside the leviathans of the FTSE 100. But some say small firms derive the greatest benefit. Paul Maher, founder of Positive Marketing which creates infographics and web copy, was on the earlier delegation to China with the Chancellor in October. Mr Maher said a small firm like his would never, otherwise, have been able to tap such opportunities: "I'm [benefiting from] very well organised logistics that sort out hotels, arrange translators, an auditorium full of businessmen that we can address and one-on-one meetings with entrepreneurs."

The Chinese preference for serious "face time" before doing deals also makes the trips valuable. Mr Maher points out that a business deal in America can involve just a few meetings on social media and then a coffee. "That is alien to Chinese business," he said. And this is where being in an official delegation can really make the difference. The fact that firms can associate themselves with the Prime Minister also helps. "It gives the company a little bit of credibility and cachet," Mr Leong said. "The Chinese love such things. It means you're OK, you're not some fly-by-night organisation."

What is the aggregate economic benefit? "In China business is done on a long-term basis. You don't go there, see somebody, sign an order and bring it back. It does not work that way. It takes someone to build a relationship," Mr Leong said.

"Too soon to tell": everyone thinks that's what Zhou Enlai said when asked by Richard Nixon what he thought the significance was of the French Revolution. Actually, that's a myth. Nevertheless perhaps that phrase best describes the economic value of these diplomatic trade expeditions: too soon to tell.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Financial Adviser

£20000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you recently QCA Level 4 qu...

SThree: Graduate Recruitment Resourcer

£20000 - £22500 per annum + OTE £30K: SThree: SThree Group have been well esta...

Guru Careers: Application Support Analyst / 1st Line Support

£25 - 30k: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Application Support Analyst / 1st L...

Guru Careers: .NET Developer / Web Developer

£45K - £55K (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a full stack .NET D...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence