UK and China 'won't always see eye-to-eye', says May before trade trip

PM must navigate human rights issues and steel dumping with little prospect of major deals

The UK and China will “not always see eye-to-eye”, Theresa May said on the eve of a three-day trade visit where she said she would underline the importance of a “rules-based” approach to economic expansion.

The prime minister’s warning before her visit to Wuhan, Beijing and Shanghai suggests she will attempt to walk a tightrope between championing a new post-Brexit era of free trade alongside coded suspicion of President Xi Jinping’s flagship Belt and Road initiative, a $900bn (£636bn) global infrastructure project which has political designs to bring neighbouring countries closer into Beijing’s orbit.

Her visit, accompanied by 50 business leaders, also comes amid a deteriorating human rights situation in mainland China, growing alarm over the erosion of Hong Kong’s political autonomy and domestic pressure to take a stand against Chinese steel dumping which is threatening the survival of the British industry.

Speaking before the trip, May said: “China is opening up to the world. The sheer economic weight of China means that the way in which this happens will have a huge role in shaping the future of the world in which we live.

“The UK and China will not always see eye-to-eye. But as partners committed to global free trade we can work together to confront and tackle challenges that affect all of our economies.”

Without directly blaming China, May said she would “continue to look at what more can be done to tackle global overcapacity in sectors such as steel”.

Her visit comes amid worsening trade tensions between the US and China. Donald Trump’s commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, raised the spectre of a tit-for-tat trade war between Washington and Beijing at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

The US administration has accused China of unfair trade practices including intellectual property theft, recently suggesting that the terms of China’s entry to the World Trade Organisation in 2001 had been too lax. May said she would stress the importance of intellectual property rights during her visit which she said would “ensure that, as our companies innovate and develop new products, they are confident that their intellectual property and rights will be fully protected … and protect the rules-based approach that underpins and enables robust, sustainable, free-flowing global trade”.

May said major economies had a special responsibility to demonstrate they “respect the rulebook” and said the UK wanted to step up trade with China in a way that “protects our values, ensures global security and advances the multilateral system and the rules for which we have fought so hard”.

Jan Gaspers, head of the European China Policy Unit at Berlin’s Mercator Institute for China Studies, said May would arrive in China “between a rock and a hard place” as she attempted to plot a post-Brexit trade route for “Global Britain”.

“She needs to show something at home in terms of economics and China obviously is a logical port of call in that respect … On the other hand she won’t get anything that is nearly as good as what the UK currently has with the EU.” He added that May would be widely criticised for failing to defend democratic values or human rights as she chased what would probably only ever be “a rather shallow economic agreement” with China.

“The Chinese are very well aware that there is no chance of negotiating anything in terms of a free trade agreement or investment agreement on a bilateral level until the relationship with the EU is sorted out.” Asked what May could hope to achieve, he added: “I’m afraid, not much.”

On Thursday, her first day in China, May is set to announce a new drive for English and Mandarin language teaching in Chinese and British schools. However, it will underscore cabinet divisions over international students in Britain.

Visiting Wuhan, which has the largest student population of any city in the world, the prime minister will announce £550m of education deals, including the opening of British Busy Bees nurseries and the extension of the UK-China exchange for primary school maths teachers until 2020. She will also announce a new push for English language training in China, where proficiency is at the lowest levels in Asia.

Downing Street said the prime minister would highlight educational partnerships, with 155,000 Chinese students currently in the UK worth an estimated £5bn annually and 9,000 young British people studying and interning in China, with numbers up 60% since 2013. However, May has historically been resistant to any further easing of student visa restrictions or to demands from some cabinet colleagues to exclude student numbers from the migration statistics.

Before her visit, May said the ties between the two countries were “reflected in our relationship on education … by teaching children to speak our languages we will ensure that our golden era of cooperation will endure for generations to come”.

The education secretary, Damian Hinds, said the UK placed great importance on learning Mandarin. “[It] is the most spoken language in the world, so this partnership will play a crucial role in teaching pupils the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in an increasingly global economy,” he said.


Jessica Elgot in Wuhan and Tom Phillips

The GuardianTramp

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