Britain's PM May won't announce decision on China-backed nuclear project ahead of G-20 summit: Official

British Prime Minister Theresa May looking on during a visit to the Warwick Manufacturing Group facility at the University of Warwick on Sept 1, 2016 in Coventry.
British Prime Minister Theresa May looking on during a visit to the Warwick Manufacturing Group facility at the University of Warwick on Sept 1, 2016 in Coventry. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister Theresa May will not announce her keenly awaited decision on a partly-Chinese funded nuclear power project in the coming days, a British official said on Saturday (Sept 3) as Ms May flew to China to meet President Xi Jinping at her first Group of 20 summit.

Ms May will make her major international summit debut on Sunday after Britain's shock vote in June to leave the European Union ousted her predecessor David Cameron and thrust her into control of the world's fifth-largest economy.

She will use the meeting to try to persuade international partners that post-Brexit Britain will remain "open for business" and a champion of global free trade, the official said, in a bid to allay concerns of a more isolationist outlook.

But despite scheduling a 30-minute meeting with Mr Xi on Monday to discuss the two countries' future ties, Ms May will stop short of sanctioning a Chinese-backed US$24-billion plan for French firm EDF to build a nuclear power plant in southern England.

"We have said we'll make a decision this month, that remains the plan. I don't expect one in the next few days," the official told reporters ahead of the visit.

The project is seen as a key test of Ms May's attitude to Chinese investment in Britain after she upset Beijing by putting the deal on hold in July amid reports she was concerned the plan could harm national security.

Before Ms May became prime minister in July, Britain had expended huge diplomatic energy courting Chinese investors to finance billions of pounds of infrastructure projects, described by Mr Xi as a "Golden Era" of relations between the two countries.

The Hinkley Point project is seen as the frontrunner to closer ties with China on nuclear issues, paving the way for tens of billions of dollars of investment and another two nuclear power plants with Chinese involvement.

The official said whatever the final decision on Hinkley was, it should not be over-interpreted as a guide to Ms May's future trade and investment decisions. "I'm not sure that when you look around the world at all Britain's partners that we are defined solely by one energy project,"the official said.

British ministers have spent the months following the surprise 52 per cent to 48 per cent vote to leave the 28-country EU scrambling to work out an exit strategy that will avoid long term damage to the economy and the country's global influence.

Rather than meet the European leaders with whom she will lock horns with over the coming years to define Britain's future ties to the EU, Ms May will focus her attention in Hangzhou on courting non-EU countries with an eye on future trade deals.

She will meet US President Barack Obama on Sunday and India's Narendra Modi on Monday, as well as making a lengthy address to all G-20 nations during a trade-focused summit session, stating that Britain remains outward looking and economically strong.

"The Prime Minister will want to look at how we look to the future and now start planning for those relationships once the UK has left the European Union," the official said, adding that May would reiterate her intention not to trigger the formal'Article 50' EU exit process this year.

Ms May will also use the summit, including a one-to-one meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, to stress that Brexit does not mean Britain will withdraw from its role in world affairs.

"It's a real opportunity for the Prime Minister to send a clear message to the world's largest economies that Britain will continue to play a bold, confident and outward looking role,"the official said. "We will continue to be a strong and dependable partner working with others to tackle the issues and challenges that countries around the world face."