Theresa May said Britain was a “natural partner” for China’s ambitious Belt and Road global infrastructure program, but she did not formally sign up on her first state visit to China.
Britain is eager to strike a free trade agreement with China, the world’s second largest economy, after it leaves the European Union.
Just 3 per cent of British exports went to China in 2016, compared to 43 per cent of exports to the European Union.
Mrs May said that, as Britain left the EU, it would “become ever-more outward-looking, and as China continues to reform and open up, we are committed to deepening our strong and vital partnership”.
Britain is unable to start formal negotiations on a bilateral trade agreement until after it has left the European Union next year.
In the meantime, Chinese premier Li Keqiang said China would “expand openness” to British products and financial services.
The pair struck deals to allow greater access for British agricultural products such as dairy, and the removal of a ban on British beef exports within six months.
This means Australian dairy and beef exporters are likely to face another competitor in Chinese supermarkets, a development that comes soon after the arrival of US chilled beef.
Mrs May’s visit has also focused on bolstering strong educational links with China, which is the largest source of international students to British universities. Her first morning was spent in the city of Wuhan, which has one million university students.
Commercial deals worth a combined £9 billion ($15 billion) are expected to be signed during the visit.
Speaking with Mr Li at a press conference in Beijing on Wednesday, Mrs May said they had agreed to “intensify the golden era of UK Chinese relations. The UK and China are both global powers with a global outlook”.
While Britain declined to sign a formal memorandum of understanding on the Belt and Road Initiative – which Beijing had been pressing for – the two nations will keep talking.
“We welcome the opportunities provided by the Belt and Road initiative to further prosperity and sustainable development across Asia and the wider world. And as with the Asian Infrastructure and Investment bank, the UK is a natural partner for the Belt and Road initiative with our unrivalled expertise,” she said.
The Turnbull government declined to sign a memorandum of understanding on BRI during Mr Li’s visit to Australia in 2017.
Former British PM David Cameron is establishing a billion-pound investment fund focused on the Belt and Road.
Under Mr Cameron, Britain was the first western nation to sign on to China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which Australia also later joined, despite pressure from the United States not to.
The May government had been seen as cooler on China than her predecessor, but in Beijing she repeated Mr Cameron’s “golden era” phrase, and said the two nations were “global partners for the long term”.
Critics have questioned whether the giant infrastructure program, which seeks to build new trade routes to China overland through Central Asia to Europe and via sea through Asia and Africa, places debt burdens on small nations and favours Chinese contractors.
Chinese government banks offer concessional loans to developing nations to build ports, dams, railways and other infrastructure.
Mrs May said she had discussed how the UK and China can “work together to identify how best we can cooperate on the Belt and Road initiative across the region and ensure it meets international standards.”
She said China and the UK would work together to “build an open global economy that works for all”.
Mr Li told the media that the two leaders had discussed human rights, and he told reporters Mrs May had also raised the issues of steel dumping and intellectual property protection.
Britain’s Foreign Office released a statement on Wednesday, as Mrs May arrived, expressing concern that Agnes Chow, one of the former leaders of the Umbrella Movement, had her nomination to stand in next month’s Hong Kong by-elections rejected.
Mrs May was due to meet Chinese president Xi Jinping on Thursday, and present him with a personal note from Sir David Attenborough and a box set of his Blue Planet II series, viewed by 80 million people in China, as a symbol of Britain and China’s shared environmental goals.
After Brexit, the UK had no choice but to improve its relationship with China, Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese Studies at Kings College, London, told the Global Times.
By Kirsty Needham