Britain is seeking a free trade agreement with China, Prime Minister Theresa May said on Wednesday as she flew to the country for talks with Chinese leaders.
She added that more should be done immediately to open up market access for British firms.
The ambitious long-term goal of securing a free trade deal with the world’s second-largest economy comes as May begins a three-day visit to China accompanied by businesses from sectors where Britain feels it can capitalise on China’s growing middle class consumers and rapidly expanding services sector.
“China is a country that we want to do a trade deal with,” May told reporters aboard her Royal Air Force jet on the way to Wuhan - a university city where she will announce half a billion pounds worth of education deals.
A Reuters report says that China accounts for just a small proportion of British exports, 3.1 percent in 2016, compared with 43 percent for the European Union.
Diplomatic sources say China has expressed willingness to talk about a future free trade deal with Britain but formal talks cannot begin until Britain officially leaves the EU next year.
Free trade talks typically take many years to conclude.
Britain has also pushed a strong message to Chinese companies that it is fully open for business.
Notable Chinese investments in Britain include the Hinkley C nuclear power station which is being built by China General Nuclear Power Corp and the British arm of France’s EDF while British firms such as Rolls Royce have won large deals from Chinese firms to supply items like plane engines.
Both May and senior Chinese officials have restated their commitment to a ‘golden era’ in ties but a row over May’s decision to delay approval for the Chinese-funded Hinkley nuclear plant in late 2016 chilled relations.
However, Britain was the first Western country to sign up to the China-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and Britain sent Finance Minister Philip Hammond to a Beijing summit last year about President Xi Jinping’s flagship ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ - a trillion-dollar infrastructure-led push to build a modern Silk Road.
May said the Belt and Road had huge potential, but cautioned that the project had to be carried out in the proper way.
May also said she would raise the future of Hong Kong in her meetings with Xi, underlining Britain’s commitment to the ‘one country, two systems’ rule in the former British colony.
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.