China's Premier Li heads to Britain to present the 'real China'

BEIJING (AFP) - China's Premier Li Keqiang left on Monday for a three-day visit to Britain, state media reported, in a trip aimed at further warming ties frozen more than a year ago over Tibet.

Mr Li departed Beijing on Monday afternoon, the official news agency Xinhua reported.

In Britain, he is expected to have an audience with Queen Elizabeth II and hold a joint press conference with Prime Minister David Cameron, whose May 2012 meeting with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama infuriated Beijing.

In a piece in Britain's Times newspaper, Mr Li said that, in addition to bolstering economic ties, he hoped "to present the real China so as to change misperceptions and ease misgivings" and also "to draw on British perspectives and experience".

Mr Li's trip to Britain is the first by a Chinese premier since his predecessor Wen Jiabao visited in 2011. The last president to go was Hu Jintao in 2005, in a visit dogged by protests by pro-Tibet and human rights campaigners.

China's leaders reduced diplomatic contacts after Mr Cameron met the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing describes as "a political exile engaged in anti-China separatist activities in the name of religion".

Ties began to thaw in June last year, when the two countries' foreign ministers spoke by phone.

That paved the way for Mr Cameron to visit Beijing last December, where the British leader made a point of stressing business rather than politics and human rights.

Chinese-British trade reached US$70 billion (S$87.5 billion) in 2013, a senior Chinese foreign ministry official said last week, adding that the total was expected to reach "new highs" in 2014.

After visiting Britain, Mr Li will travel to Greece to meet Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and President Karolos Papoulias. His trip lasts until June 21.