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.

News
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete tomorrow
News
people'I’d rather have Fred and Rose West quote my characters on childcare'
News
Kim Jong Un gives field guidance during his inspection of the Korean People's Army (KPA) Naval Unit 167
newsSouth Korean reports suggest rumours of a coup were unfounded
Arts and Entertainment
You could be in the Glastonbury crowd next summer if you follow our tips for bagging tickets this week
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
Swimmer also charged with crossing double land lines and excessive speeding
News
people
News
i100
News
moneyForbes 400 list released
Life and Style
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie performs during her Kiss Me Once tour
musicReview: 26 years on from her first single, the pop princess tries just a bit too hard at London's O2
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Voices
The erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey has already been blamed for a rise in the number of callouts to the fire brigade for people trapped in handcuffs
voicesJustine Elyot: Since Fifty Shades there's no need to be secretive about it — everyone's at it
Life and Style
Moves to regulate e-cigarettes and similar products as medicines come amid increasing evidence of their effectiveness
healthHuge anti-smoking campaign kicks off on Wednesday
News
Piers Morgan tells Scots they might not have to suffer living on the same island as him if they vote ‘No’ to Scottish Independence
peopleBroadcaster has a new role bringing 'the big stories that matter' to US
Arts and Entertainment
A new Banksy entitled 'Art Buff' has appeared in Folkestone, Kent
art
Arts and Entertainment
Shia LaBeouf is one of Brad Pitt's favourite actors in the world ever, apparently
filmsAn 'eccentric' choice, certainly
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

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Real Staffing

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Real Staffing are currently lo...

Trust Accountant - Kent

NEGOTIABLE: Austen Lloyd: TRUST ACCOUNTANT - KENTIf you are a Chartered Accou...

Graduate Recruitment Consultant - 2013/14 Grads - No Exp Needed

£18000 - £20000 per annum + OTE £30000: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 b...

Law Costs

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - Law Costs Draftsperson - NICHE...

Day In a Page

Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style