British companies have failed to exploit the commercial opportunities in China, a worldwide survey of 3,000 businesses shows today. Just one in 100 mid-size UK firms said its business had been affected by the Chinese economy, while only 11 per cent saw it as an opportunity.
Grant Thornton, which commissioned the survey of 7,000 business leaders, said the findings were a "wake-up call for British boardrooms", which were falling behind their main economic rivals.
"The UK currently appears to have an ambivalent attitude towards trade with mainland China," Jim Rogers, its head of growth and strategic services, said. "It is vital that medium-sized UK businesses do not ignore that markets that are opening up in the Far East. Today these opportunities don't come much bigger than those available in China."
The survey showed that British firms see China as a threat rather than an opportunity. A balance of 18 per cent saw China more as an economic rival.
Some sectors have made progress in China, such as whisky distillers and retailers, especially in the wake of the end of the textile quota regime at the start of last year. "Some UK businesses have made inroads into China but the point is that this market has the potential to yield far more returns that we are currently attempting to achieve," Mr Rogers said.
"This is especially true for those in financial services, energy, ICT, healthcare, water, aerospace, automotive, construction and chemical industries."
Economists believe that China's demand for services will accelerate as the country seeks to build on its industrial revolution, which turned the country into the world's biggest importer of commodities such as steel. But the breakdown of the Grant Thornton survey showed that one in 20 believes China presents the biggest opportunity over the next two years, compared with 14 per cent support for the United States.
Official trade figures showed that the UK sends just 1 per cent of its exports to China, which has a population of 1.2 billion, and 52 per cent to the rest of the EU, which has 300 million inhabitants. Of 30 countries surveyed, the UK ranks 16th in terms of export share.
Mr Rogers acknowledged UK companies were deterred by China's complex legal system and unfamiliar business environment, as well as issues such as Beijing's failure to enforce intellectual property rights.
The report showed that the countries that had benefited most from the Chinese boom where either commodity-rich states such as Australia, or those that had embraced the offshoring trend in manufacturing such as the US.