UK-China legal cooperation along the Belt and Road

Lord Keen of Elie QC, delivered an opening speech at UK-China Rule of Law Roundtable on 24 November.

UK-China legal cooperation along the Belt and Road

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your welcome. I am delighted to be here for the opening of this flagship UK-China conference and for the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between the China Law Society and the Great Britain China Centre.

I would like to begin by thanking President Wang Lequan and Sir Martin Davidson for hosting and organising today’s event. It is encouraging to see so many distinguished guests and experts here. A real testament to the strength of support for greater UK-China judicial and legal cooperation not only to help drive economic prosperity and security in both our countries but also across the globe.

Today we are living in an ever-more interconnected world. Businesses and individuals from all corners of the globe are making links and forging new relationships with each other. These fruitful connections help drive economic growth, across the globe. The Belt and Road Initiative is an important contributor to this global connectivity. Its predecessor, the Ancient Silk Road, certainly was.

For many, that name, “the Silk Road”, evokes exotic and magical images of the past. Silk and spice and gold. But the Ancient Silk Route symbolised much more than this. It was a bridge between the East and West. For millennia, it connected great civilisations across Asia, Europe and Africa fostering not only commercial but also intellectual exchange. It facilitated the sharing of ideas and philosophies; the spread of technology and scientific thought; with a deep and long-lasting influence on global history and culture.

It was the world’s central nervous system connecting not just people and places but also ideas and innovation.

And now a new route emerges. The Belt and Road initiative.

The UK recognises the important role the Belt and Road Initiative can play in rekindling the era of the Ancient Silk Road, causing new connections to spring up across the spine of Asia and in addressing the historic shortage of infrastructure in the region. From building roads and ports, to pipelines across the Asian continent to deliver oil and natural gas, to new transcontinental railway lines carrying freight from Chongqing to Duisburg. Major new urban centres are being founded and new markets being opened up. There are opportunities for all.

There are, however, real challenges to realising the economic benefits of this global connectivity. Persuading business and individuals to take advantage of the connections they make is a demanding issue. If we are to leverage these networks to achieve sustainable economic growth, we also need to create predictable and stable legal environments that give businesses and individuals the confidence to work together - to innovate, to trade and to invest. Before taking decisions on major new partnerships or projects, a business will want certainty over, for example, what mechanisms it can use for resolving a commercial dispute; what rules and standards will govern its operations; what degree of protection will there be for its physical and intellectual property.

These considerations are the same no matter whether the business is in the UK, China or in a third country around the world.

As part of President Xi Jinping’s State Visit to the UK last year, our countries agreed to form a new Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership fit for the 21st Century. Judicial and Legal Cooperation forms an essential aspect of this partnership.

This was reiterated at the 8th UK-China Economic and Financial Dialogue held two weeks ago in London. The Vice Premier Ma Kai and our Finance Minister, Phillip Hammond, agreed the importance of working together to remove barriers hindering strong cooperation between UK and Chinese companies and individuals and to foster a more predictable, stable and fair legal environment in which they can operate. This is required not only at home but also in third countries, particularly along the Belt and Road.

We have already established strong collaboration in many judicial and legal fields.

We have an annual UK-China Judicial Roundtable between the UK Supreme Court and Supreme People’s Court of China. The last roundtable was hosted in May this year in Beijing.

This year we also welcomed the President of the Supreme People’s Court of China, Zhou Qiang, to London on his ‘Trip of Common Law’ during which our judiciaries signed a Letter of Exchange committing to more in-depth exchange through Expert Working Groups.

The UK and China are also working together bilaterally and internationally to tackle corruption. We co-chaired the G20 Anti-Corruption Working Group this year, which was further supported through the London Conference on Anti-Corruption, hosted by the UK in May. We are also sharing experience on anti-money laundering, supporting project work with the People’s Bank of China.

We are strong partners in all areas of law including efforts to strengthen protection of intellectual property. The UK Intellectual Property Office and China’s State Intellectual Property Office celebrated 20 years of collaboration in August this year.

The Great Britain China Centre has been a key actor, helping the UK forge links with judicial and legal institutions across China over the last 30 years and in recent years a new burgeoning relationship with the China Law Society.

Now we are taking this up a level, designing a comprehensive programme of cooperation on Rule of Law issues to:

  • Balance the competitiveness of our economies;
  • Reduce business costs and risks;
  • Improve overall transparency and promote stronger corporate governance standards; and
  • Support legal education and the law making process.

Specifically on the Belt and Road Initiative, we have strengthened cooperation by launching the UK-Infrastructure Alliance, to promote commercial collaboration in each others’ markets and in third markets.

So how can our legal cooperation support this?

On the Belt and Road Initiative and in other cooperation by UK and Chinese companies in third countries, we need to identify legal barriers to collaboration. The Belt and Road Initiative work needs to be done in a sustainable way, in a manner that secures buy-in from local communities and protects the environment. This is a particular challenge when you consider the Belt and Road Initiative involves over sixty countries. Common rules and standards will be important as well as an understanding of, and respect for different cultures. This conference should just be the start of this conversation.

Our experience is that rule of law is essential if we are to sustain a prosperous and stable society and ensure the protection of universal human rights. There is much we can learn from each other. Having worked in law for over 35 years, I am proud of the strengths and history of the British legal systems. We are the birthplace of Magna Carta, habeas corpus and other legal innovations that safeguard the rights of individuals as well as the State. We have: a highly regarded, professional and independent judiciary; strong, effective and accountable law enforcement agencies; and a world-class legal services sector.

I am delighted that today the Great Britain China Centre and the China Law Society are signing this Memorandum of Understanding, committing themselves to a long term cooperation on judicial and legal issues. Such cooperation is important for our future, our global security and our economic stability.

I hope that the conversations you have today help act as a catalyst for identifying new and better ways the UK and China can work together to maintain stable, predictable and fair legal systems. As the old Chinese saying goes, ‘when you add wood to the fire, the flame will go high’.

Thank you.

Published 30 November 2016