China and Britain touted their ‘golden era’ of relations on Wednesday as Prime Minister Theresa May visited Beijing to strengthen her country's global trade links before its contentious divorce with the European Union.
May brought a large business delegation for her three-day visit, which began earlier in the day in the central industrial city of Wuhan and continued in the Chinese capital.
May is battling criticism of her Brexit strategy back home. The House of Lords is scrutinising a key piece of legislation on quitting the EU as a leaked government report shows only economic downsides to leaving the bloc.
Britain's ties with China have grown in importance as London contemplates its economic future after it officially leaves the EU in March 2019.
May was greeted at the imposing Great Hall of the People by Premier Li Keqiang, who noted that the prime minister was visiting Beijing ahead of next month's Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival.
‘I believe that a visit in the early spring will bring new fruits, which will further raise the golden era in China-Britain relations. I'm willing to exchange views on issues of mutual concern with you,’ Li said.
May said their meeting was an opportunity to ‘consider how we can build further on that golden era and on the global strategic partnership that we have been working on between the UK and China’.
‘I think there is much that can be done in the trade area,’ she said.
May is accompanied by her husband Philip and a delegation of 50 business leaders and organisation representatives, which her office said was ‘the largest’ her government has ever taken overseas.
May will also take the opportunity to discuss a wide range of other issues, including climate change and North Korea, but she was also under pressure to address the political situation in former colony Hong Kong and human rights abuses in mainland China.
China also has high expectations that London will endorse its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a massive infrastructure project aimed at reviving ancient Silk Road trade routes between the East and West and creating greater market access for Chinese companies.
The British government, however, has been less sanguine about the project, with May's spokesman saying that while the idea holds promise, it is ‘vital that BRI projects meet international standards’.
She will hold talks with President Xi Jinping on Thursday and finish her visit Friday in the eastern business hub of Shanghai.
- Rights and Hong Kong -
Before her trip, the former British governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, urged May to address concerns about the political situation in the semi-autonomous city, which London handed back to Beijing in 1997.
In a letter to May's Downing Street office, Patten said Hong Kong was facing ‘increasing threats to the basic freedoms, human rights and autonomy’ which its people were promised after the handover.
Human Rights Watch also urged the British leader to ‘get tough with China’ on rights.
But business is the focus of her trip.
‘The UK and China will not always see eye-to-eye,’ she wrote in a Financial Times column.
‘But as partners committed to global free trade we can work together to confront and tackle challenges that affect all of our economies.’
Britain has said it will leave the EU's single market and customs union so that it can strike its own trade deals with countries outside the bloc, making China's huge market an attractive target.
In preparation, a number of British officials have travelled to China in recent months. Trade minister Liam Fox discussed market access for British exports, including its key financial services sector.
Finance minister Philip Hammond worked on final preparations for a ‘stock connect’ between the London and Shanghai exchanges, and mulled the possibility of linking their bond markets as well.
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