, Beijing, China, Jan 31 – Prime Minister Theresa May Wednesday forecast a “golden era” in Sino-British relations with deeper trade ties after Britain leaves the European Union, but her visit to China was dogged by Brexit rows at home.
As she embarked on the three-day visit, May batted away critics of her leadership on Brexit and domestic issues, including within her Conservative party.
“First and foremost, I’m serving my country and my party. I’m not a quitter and there’s a long-term job to be done,” she told reporters travelling with her.
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.
May discussed Brexit with Premier Li Keqiang when they met at the imposing Great Hall of the People, where both leaders boasted about their “golden era” of relations and the potential for better trade ties.
“We are determined to deepen our trading relationship even further and we are ambitious for what our future trade relationship will be,” May said.
The British leader said more than nine billion pounds ($12.7 billion) in business deals would be signed during her visit.
The two countries also launched a joint trade and investment review to “identify priorities” on goods, services and investment, she said.
They also agreed new measures to improve access to the Chinese market and remove trade barriers, including lifting a ban on British beef exports to China within six months.
In a nod to her hosts, May said “we welcome the opportunities” provided by China’s cherished Belt and Road initiative, a massive infrastructure project aimed at reviving ancient Silk Road trade routes between East and West and creating greater market access for Chinese companies.
But she threw in a caveat, saying the two countries would continue to work together to ensure that the endeavour “meets international standards”.
Li said Sino-British relations “don’t have winter, only spring” and their ties would not be affected by Brexit.
“Brexit is a situation that both our countries face,” he said. “Our bilateral relationship will not change with the changes of UK relations. We will have assessment and discussion on our trade relationship to make our economic and trade relationship move forward.”
– Rights and Hong Kong –
May, who will hold talks with President Xi Jinping on Thursday and finish her visit Friday in the eastern business hub of Shanghai, was under pressure to address thorny issues with China.
Before her trip the former British governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, urged her 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.