When West meets East--By Sir Edward Heath, former British Prime Minister - a piece written for the UK Chinese embassy.
I am delighted and honoured to have been asked to contribute a short piece to mark the 30th anniversary of the establishment of full diplomatic relations between the United Kingdom and the People's Republic of China.
I have always been interested in China, her people and her culture. By the beginning of the 1970s the Chinese leadership were sending strong signals to the West that they were intent on pursing an entirely independent foreign policy and were interested in closer relations. The United Kingdom had had a limited trading relationship with China since the 1960s, but had never established a full diplomatic relationship with the People's Republic of China. I was convinced that the time had come to put behind us old differences and built a new relationship on the basis of mutual respect and friendship. There were three reasons for this.
The first and most important was my recognition of China's increasing power; it was obvious to me even then that, in time, she would play an important role not just in Pacific Asia but also on the international stage. We could either try and limit her power as the West had tried to do in the nineteenth century or we could deal we her on an equal basis. I was convinced that European countries should deal with China on an equal basis and encourage her to play a full role on the international stage. It turned out that the American President, Richard Nixon, had also come to the same conclusion about the same time.
A cordial relationship with China was essential for my second objective, the smooth handover of Hong King to China when the lease expired in 1997. As a result of my initiative an informal understanding was agreed whereby China agreed not to challenge British authority in Hong Kong and the United Kingdom undertook not to take any action that would undermine China's interests. As a result of the political stability that the agreement ensured Hong Kong soon began its rise to economic prominence.
I am a little disappointed that my successors have not done more to achieve my third objective - greater trade with China. Trade between China and the United Kingdom is still very limited when compared to American, Japanese and other European competitors.
It is one of my deepest regrets that I was unable to visit China as Prime Minister. Richard Nixon had been the first American president to visit China and I hoped to be the first European prime minister. Unfortunately when I eventually was able to visit the country in May 1974 it was, alas, as Leader of the Opposition. This disappointment was, I think, also felt by the Chinese. During one of my early visits to China I was discussing with Deng Xiaoping the best political system for administrating a country of one billion people. Deng went through the political systems of various countries, although not the United Kingdom, pointing out the obvious disadvantages of each. He discussed the same question a month later with the Japanese Prime Minister. This time he mentioned the disadvantages of the British political system. “Now take the British,” he said, “look at them. They had Ted Heath as Prime Minister, an absolutely first rate Prime Minister, and they got rid of him.” That's not what I want. I entirely agreed!
I have visited China 26 times since then and the country and her people never fail to amaze me. China has come a long way since I first visited her in 1974. She is a major international player as a permanent member of the Security Council and, recently, as a full member of the World Trade Organisation. Her economic growth continues to astonish her friends and astound her critics. The volume of construction is phenomenal. Every year I visit Beijing and every year the skyline of the city has changed as superb new skyscrapers are completed; four broad circular roads surround them. The same is true for Shanghai and other major cities. Everywhere people are busy working for a new and more prosperous future.
I am proud to have played my part in establishing a better relationship between China and the United Kingdom. I believe that Chinese-British relations are in good condition although they are not as close as I would wish. I remain disappointed that British trade with China is still rather limited when compared to America and other European countries. Now that Hong Kong has been returned to China it is important that the new generation of British political leaders pursue with the new generation of Chinese leaders that will take power this year a more constructive dialogue, especially in the area of trade than has been the case hitherto. The People's Republic of China is already the economic powerhouse of Asia and will play an increasingly important role in the international community. We must ensure that we work together for international stability and a fairer world.