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
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
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: Digital Optimisation Executive - Marketing

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's fastest growing, multi...

Recruitment Genius: Financial Reporting Manager

£70000 - £90000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Financial Reporting Manager i...

Recruitment Genius: Payments Operations Assistant

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They win lots of awards for the...

Recruitment Genius: Telephone Debt Negotiator

£13500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This nationwide enforcement com...

Day In a Page

Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific