BEIJING (AFP) - Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visits Britain next week, marking a further improvement of ties following a diplomatic freeze lasting more than a year due to Tibet-related tensions.
Mr Li, the No. 2 leader of China's ruling Communist Party, departs Beijing on Monday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said. From Britain he will travel on to Greece.
In London, he is expected to have a rare audience with Queen Elizabeth II and will hold a joint press conference with Prime Minister David Cameron, whose May 2012 private meeting with the Dalai Lama was strongly condemned by Beijing.
Mr Li's trip to Britain is the first by a Chinese premier since his predecessor Wen Jiabao visited in 2011. The last Chinese president to go was Hu Jintao in 2005, whose visit was dogged by protests by pro-Tibet and human rights campaigners.
China's leaders reduced diplomatic contacts after Mr Cameron's meeting with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader whom Beijing characterises as a "political exile engaged in anti-China separatist activities in the name of religion".
The relationship began to thaw last June, when both countries' foreign ministers spoke by phone.
That paved the way for a visit last December by Mr Cameron to Beijing, a trip billed as Britain's biggest-ever trade mission to China.
Mr Cameron worked hard to emphasis business ties rather than politics and human rights during the trip. Still, the resumption of regular human rights talks was touted as one of the key successes of Mr Cameron's visit.
But as Sino-British relations have warmed, China's leaders have continued to react sharply to international criticism of their human rights record.
After Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office listed China as one of its 28 "countries of concern" in a human rights report, Beijing in April abruptly pulled out of scheduled talks, complaining that London had "slandered" China.
On Thursday, Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Wang Chao defended the country's rights record, telling a briefing about Mr Li's trip that "China has open communication channels with all countries, including the UK, on human rights".
Two-way trade between the countries topped US$70 billion (S$87.4 billion) in 2013, Mr Wang said, telling reporters that Beijing expects that figure to reach "new highs" this year.
After visiting Britain, Mr Li travels to Greece, where he is scheduled to meet Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and President Karolos Papoulias, before wrapping up his trip on June 21.
The countries will sign a joint declaration and a set of agreements and business contracts, Mr Wang said.
Mr Li and Mr Samaras will also visit the container terminal at the port of Piraeus, which is operated by Chinese shipping giant Cosco.
"This is the first time for a Chinese company to obtain a long-term concession for a European port," Mr Wang said.
"So, it is very significant," he added.
"Over the past four years, the operation of this port has been very good, and it has made good contributions to promoting the local economy and increasing employment."