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Theresa May in China

4 February 2018

Even if the results were meagre, a beleaguered Theresa May probably welcomed the opportunity to escape the febrile Westminster atmosphere for a three day visit to China this week. The British prime minister heads a minority government and continues to be haunted by a possible leadership challenge as well as constant Cabinet in-fighting over a hard v soft Brexit.

Her principal aims in China were to try and convince Chinese leaders that she would be in power for some time and that post-Brexit, there would be a new ‘golden age’ of UK-China relations. President Xi and Prime Minister Li said that there could be close relations whatever the UK’s future status.

Before she left London, May wrote an op ed for the Financial Times, stressing the importance of maintaining free trade on the basis of reciprocity and a level playing field. These were key EU principles to which she added the need for China to further open its market. She remained sceptical about China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) arguing that it was at an early stage and it was important that it operated on the basis of transparency and international standards. In her press conference with Premier Li, May said that the two countries would continue to work together ‘to identify how best we can co-operate on Belt and Road across the region and ensure it meets international standards.’ May also expressed concern about intellectual property theft and cyber security.

May took along a large business delegation and there were a number of trade deals agreed. But even Liam Fox, the pro-Brexit Trade minister, accepted that a future FTA with China was some years away. Two-way trade at $60bn was only a quarter of Germany’s trade with China. Premier Li said they had discussed measures to reduce China’s steel capacity. China had already made a commitment to cut steel capacity by 200m tonnes by 2020, and had already cut 100m tonnes since 2016.

Li made encouraging sounds about a future UK trade deal as well as opening Chinese markets more generally to UK agricultural products. China had banned British beef imports for the past twenty years following the mad cow scare. Both sides agreed to carry out a joint trade and investment review to identify priorities for promoting growth in goods, services and investment.

One of the areas where the UK and China have deepened relations is in people to people exchanges. A number of education deals were agreed with a focus on language teaching and an exchange of math teachers. The UK granted over 600,000 visas to China last year said May.

In her foreign policy exchanges with President Xi, the two leaders discussed the importance of a non-nuclear DPRK and maintaining the Iran deal. There was also a discussion on likely agenda issues for the next G20 the summit to be held in Argentina later this year.

The British said that May did not shy away from expressing concern over developments in Hong Kong and human rights in China. But if these issued were raised they were done in private. May made no reference to either in her remarks to the press.

May also raised environmental issues with Xi and presented him with a box-set of the BBC's Blue Planet II series, with a personal message from presenter Sir David Attenborough. May also said the two sides had agreed to cooperate in strengthening international action against the illegal trade in ivory.

Overall May can be pleased at the visit even if the results were not eye-catching. But even in China she could not escape the media asking her constantly about Brexit and cabinet splits.