UK, Chinese leaders seeking robust ties after Brexit

Visiting British PM calls China a long-term global partner, Chinese Premier talks of growing 'golden era' in relations

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China's relations with Britain will remain unchanged through Brexit, Premier Li Keqiang said on Wednesday, as British Prime Minister Theresa May kicked off a three-day visit to China.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and British Prime Minister Theresa May inspecting the ceremonial guard at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing yesterday.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and British Prime Minister Theresa May inspecting the ceremonial guard at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing yesterday. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

BEIJING • British Prime Minister Theresa May and her Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang set thorny political issues aside and offered a bullish vision of the two countries' relationship after Brexit.

"The UK and China are global partners for the long term," Mrs May said at a joint press conference in Beijing yesterday, outlining plans for a joint trade and investment review of bilateral ties.

"China is a country that we want to do a trade deal with."

Mr Li said Mrs May's visit will further improve the "golden era" in UK-China relations and "bring new fruits".

Mrs May's business mission to China is meant to demonstrate her government's intent to forge a global trade policy after leaving the European Union next year.

While Britain cannot sign any deals outside the EU before leaving the bloc - and would not be able to implement them before at least 2021 - she is hoping to strike now.

British companies will also sign deals worth £9 billion (S$16.7 billion) during her visit, she said, without giving details.

"Our relationship will not change because of changes in Britain-Europe ties," Mr Li said.

But he acknowledged there would need to be an adaptation.

"While we must adapt to these changes, we will assess and talk about future bilateral trade and investment arrangements, to continue to push forward China-Britain relations, including trade and business ties."

Mrs May's delegation - which includes 50 business leaders, Trade Secretary Liam Fox, a clutch of officials and her husband - are optimistic about progress towards formal trade talks.

China is also keen to build greater ties with a key United States ally and long-time pillar of Europe.

Mrs May's predecessor, Mr David Cameron, hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping on a state visit in October 2015.

A commentary published yesterday by the state-run Xinhua News Agency said the "'liberating effect" of Brexit could help ties between the two sides reach a "new high".

China and Britain plan to step up cooperation in energy, nuclear technology, high-speed railways, aerospace and artificial intelligence, it said.

The two sides are discussing the feasibility of a bond-trading link that would mark a fresh step in opening up the world's largest emerging debt market, Bloomberg reported last month, citing people familiar with the matter.

The two countries have agreed to lift a ban on British beef exports to China in six months, Mrs May said.

Mrs May had said she would raise the sensitive topics of China's human rights record and Hong Kong's democracy in talks.

She has also shown reluctance to formally endorse Mr Xi's global Belt and Road trade-and-infrastructure initiative, potentially putting at risk her pursuit of more robust ties.

Mr Li confirmed that the two had discussed human rights, while Mrs May said she also raised the issue of overcapacity in the steel market, an issue that has led to job losses in Britain and Europe since exports from China surged.

Asked about China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Mrs May struck a diplomatic tone, saying the plan had the "potential to further prosperity and sustainable development across Asia and the wider world".

"We will work together to encourage free and fair trade, ensure a transparent, rules-based multilateral trading system, and build an open global economy that works for all," she said.

London-headquartered Standard Chartered said in December that it plans to facilitate at least US$20 billion (S$26.2 billion) of financing for the BRI by 2020.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 01, 2018, with the headline UK, Chinese leaders seeking robust ties after Brexit. Subscribe