My appointment as the ICE’s special representative for China followed the signing of the memorandum of understanding with the China International Contractors Association (Chinca) by Sir Michael Bear during the prime minister’s visit to Beijing in December 2013. Since then I have been regularly asked “Does China represent a threat or an opportunity?”.
It is clear in my mind but, before I answer, it is worthwhile reflecting on China’s remarkable journey since I first arrived in Hong Kong for the commencement of the Mass Transit Railway’s construction some 41 years ago.Then, there were two very different countries with guarded borders: British Hong Kong prospering with its “made in HK” brand and the mainland, dependant on a feudal agriculture regime. I recall the news that China was to adopt a market-based economy. It was not possible to envisage the ramifications these reforms would have on China and the world.
Fortunately, our country representative Geoffrey Mills, who has lived in Shanghai for 25 years, together with other ICE members, realised that, if we were to retain our global relevance, we needed to collaborate with our Chinese counterparts.
As ICE’s vice president, international I worked with Geoff and the British Consul in 2000/01 and together we convinced the mayor of Shanghai, Xu Kuangdi – himself an eminent engineer – to establish an ICE office in Shanghai supported by the Shanghai Construction Group. Later, Central Government permitted a second office in Beijing sponsored by China Harbour Engineering Company; thus providing the ICE with a strong foothold.
The memorandum of understanding signed in 2013, establishing a strategic partnership with Chinca was therefore a natural progression, and negotiations to develop and implement the agreement are ongoing between China, Geoff, myself and the ICE.
The ICE’s engagement with leading Chinese companies delivering infrastructure around the world is generating greater understanding of social and technical approaches, and progress is being made with regard to qualifications, training, exchanges of technical material and joint research.
An employee exchange programme was launched between China and the UK last year with Mott MacDonald taking the first candidate to its Manchester Office. Chinese contractors are keen for their staff to take part and I encourage UK companies to get involved. It is a simple and cost-effective way to build relationships and understand how the infrastructure landscape may change.
The UK, next to the United States, is the most attractive destination for foreign direct investment (FDI) in which China plays a major part. In 2014, FDI provided 887 projects and over 30,000 new jobs. China’s role in the world will be increasingly significant in future, and we should build common ground and engage now.
So to return to the question: “Does China represent a threat or an opportunity?” With every opportunity there is risk but in my view the ICE must collaborate if we are to remain on top of technology and retain our global relevance. Likewise, industry should seek to collaborate with Chinese companies on the pipeline of work both in the UK and worldwide.
Doug Oakervee is the ICE’s special representative for China