By William James
LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Theresa May promised to hold “frank discussions” with China during a crucial trade visit later this week, with several awkward diplomatic issues like North Korea and Brexit expected to be discussed.
May will use meetings with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang to try to regain momentum in the international race to secure British participation in China’s services sector boom as she seeks a new role for Britain outside the European Union.
Traveling with her husband Philip and a delegation of 50 business leaders, May has to reheat diplomatic ties that have suffered from a perceived coldness since she took power shortly after Britain’s Brexit vote in July 2016.
“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,” May said in a statement. She is due to depart on Tuesday afternoon.
May has echoed calls by U.S. President Donald Trump for China to press neighboring North Korea into reining in its nuclear and missile development.
Britain has also previously expressed concern about steel overproduction, human rights abuses and the health of democratic development in former British colony Hong Kong.
Britain’s last governor in Hong Kong before it was handed back to the Chinese, Chris Patten, had written to May on Monday urging her to raise concerns over the “increasing threats to the basic freedoms, human rights and autonomy” in the territory.
In the past sensitive diplomatic issues have spilled over into trade talks, with May’s predecessor David Cameron prompting a freeze in relations in 2012 by meeting the Dalai Lama in London.
With Britain about to undergo its most significant economic upheaval since World War Two, relations with China are set to become increasingly important as May’s government looks to develop markets outside the EU.
But Chinese officials have expressed unease about what Brexit could mean for Chinese firms who have invested in Britain.
May is also under pressure to deliver a positive story in China from those closer to home. Her position as leader has been weakened by ministers openly lobbying for different types of exit and hardline eurosceptics unhappy at her Brexit strategy.
Trade secretary Liam Fox will head a diverse delegation ranging from executives of large multinationals like HSBC and AstraZeneca to smaller firms like Northern Irish seafood wholesaler Rooney Fish.
“Our relationship is now more important than ever, as we look to form new trading bonds with the biggest growing markets around the world,” Fox said, citing data showing China’s middle class is expected to grow to 600 million people by 2020.
(Reporting by William James; Additional reporting by Venus Wu in Hong Kong; Editing by Ralph Boulton and Sam Holmes)