Theresa May to visit China with aim of boosting trade ties

PM’s efforts to reassure Beijing about UK post-Brexit likely to dominate three-day trip

 British prime minister Theresa May shakes hands with China’s president, Xi Jinping, at G20 Leaders Summit in Hangzhou  in 2015. Photograph: Etienne Oliveau

British prime minister Theresa May shakes hands with China’s president, Xi Jinping, at G20 Leaders Summit in Hangzhou in 2015. Photograph: Etienne Oliveau


Theresa May travels to China this week hoping to revive a “golden era” of trade ties, as the British prime minister seeks to soothe Beijing’s jangled nerves over the country’s future after it leaves the EU.

UK exports to China have increased by 60 per cent since 2010, and three years ago President Xi Jinping famously hailed a “golden era” of Sino-British ties during a visit to Britain, which included being hosted by Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace and a visit to Manchester City football ground.

Since then, the decision in 2016 to leave the European Union has made Beijing nervous about the UK’s prospects.

“We are in the age of Brexit and the sense of insecurity that Brexit is unleashing requires the British government to show that it can reach out to the world beyond the EU for its long-term economic security and prosperity,” Steve Tsang, director of the Soas China Institute in London, told The Irish Times.

Annoyed government

Ms May is also seen as less enthusiastic about building links to China than her predecessor, David Cameron. One of the first things she did on becoming prime minister was to put on hold a new China-built nuclear reactor at Hinkley Point, which annoyed the Beijing government.

“My visit will intensify the ‘golden era’ in UK-China relations. The depth of our relationship means we can have frank discussions on all issues,” Ms May said ahead of her three-day visit. She arrives in China on Wednesday and will visit the central city of Wuhan, as well as Beijing and Shanghai.

During her trip she will meet Mr Xi, premier Li Keqiang and business leaders. Accompanying her will be trade secretary Liam Fox at the head of a delegation of 50 companies ranging from large firms such as HSBC and AstraZeneca to universities and smaller companies such as the Kilkeel-based seafood wholesaler Rooney Fish.

Mr Tsang expects to see a large number of deals announced and efforts to show the “golden age” is still real.

Other issues on the agenda are likely to include the North Korean nuclear crisis and efforts to address climate change. Former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten wrote to Ms May urging her to address the erosion of the former crown colony’s autonomy.

New Silk Road

A potentially thorny area, and a possible distraction from Ms May’s focus on trade, could be Chinese pressure to have London officially endorse Mr Xi’s “belt and road” initiative, a large-scale infrastructure and investment project for the region to build what Beijing envisages as a new Silk Road from China through Asia to Europe.

Ms May is likely to come under pressure from Beijing to endorse the project, something the EU has also refused to do, citing transparency and environment concerns. Ms May will probably hold the line on not endorsing it.

“London will not want to see it raised, but this Chinese approach reveals how diminished Britain has become in Chinese perception as we enter the era of Brexit. Some in Beijing now seem to think that Great Britain can now be instructed to do China’s biddings as and when required,” said Mr Tsang.