British PM Theresa May's visit to China succeeds in boosting bilateral ties and trade

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May and her husband Philip May with paper cut-outs of the Chinese character for "luck" during their visit to the Yu Garden in Shanghai on Feb 2, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING - British Prime Minister Theresa May's China visit can be deemed a success, having boosted bilateral ties and laid the groundwork for further cooperation in trade and investment, analysts said.

The beleaguered leader, battered at home by acrimony over Brexit talks, was received warmly by both Chinese leaders and people during her three-day visit, which ended in Shanghai on Friday (Feb 2).

She was pleasantly surprised - honoured, she said - when a CCTV interviewer told her that many people refer to her affectionately as "May-yi" or Auntie May.

At her meeting on Thursday with President Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader urged both sides to build on the past success of the China-Britain relationship.

He called for an enhanced version of the "Golden Era", a term used to describe bilateral ties during his visit to Britain in 2015.

Waxing lyrical about the future of bilateral ties, he said, quoting Shakespeare: "What's past is prologue."

"Golden Era" was a catchphrase of Mrs May's trip. She told Premier Li Keqiang at their meeting on Wednesday that both sides should seek to "build further on that golden era and on the global strategic partnership that we have been working on".

However, for a time after she became Prime Minister in 2016, ties between the two countries went through a "testy period", as an editorial in the Global Times newspaper put it. That was when Mrs May delayed approval of the Hinkley Point nuclear power plant project that the Chinese had a part in.

With the decision to leave the European Union, the British government regards China as one of its most important economic partners in the post-Brexit world, noted Mr Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist at IHS Markit.

Mrs May's visit, therefore, had a strong focus on further strengthening trade and investment ties and attracting more Chinese investments into Britain, he added.

After her meeting with Mr Xi, Mrs May noted that £9 billion (S$16.8 billion) in business trade deals would be signed on her trip and that China's markets would be further opened to Britain, including beef, dairy and other food products.

The leaders also discussed a free trade deal and agreed to hold more talks on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), according to media reports.

Mrs May's visit, said Mr Biswas, "was a successful first step in strengthening bilateral ties with China, with a number of significant trade deals that will improve the UK's market access to China". But he added "much more work" is needed for Britain to narrow the huge bilateral trade deficit, which stood at £25.4 billion in 2016.

Professor Xu Mingqi, director of the European Studies Centre at Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, noted the large business delegation that accompanied Mrs May.

The interaction between the business people on both sides would build the foundation for cooperation, increasing the room for trade and investment development, he said.

While Mrs May did not sign a memorandum of understanding on the BRI, she had positive discussions with the Chinese leadership on it and opportunities for British firms, said Mr Biswas.

Noting that Britain was concerned that the BRI should have greater transparency and meet international standards, he said "both sides are likely to make efforts to improve cooperation on the BRI in a constructive way".

He also said Britain's imminent exit from the EU will diminish its strategic significance for China, as it will no longer have a role in shaping EU policy.

However, Prof Xu said Britain would remain important to China because politically it is a member of the United Nations Security Council and economically the two countries are complementary.

Mrs May was also under pressure to raise the issue of the erosion of basic freedoms in Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to the Chinese fold in 1997. She did not speak about this publicly - although she raised it privately with Chinese leaders, according to reports.

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