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20th Sep 2020

May in search of post-Brexit Chinese El Dorado

  • May in the Forbidden City. 'There's not a great deal to put down on paper' after her three-day trip to China. (Photo: Number10/flickr)

UK prime minister Theresa May spent three days in China this week trying to build post-Brexit economic perspectives for her country.

In a meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Thursday (1 February), she said she wanted to "take further forward the global strategic partnership" with China.

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She led a delegation of 50 British businessmen and said that after Brexit, the UK will be a "more outward-looking country" that was "able to operate an independent trade policy."

She added that bilateral trade is worth over £59 billion (€67b), with UK exports to China up 60 percent since 2010 and concluded some a £9 billion [€10b] in new commercial deals.

The two countries agreed on a Trade and Investment Review, which May described "as a first step" towards more trade agreements, and pledged to speed a plan to connect the Shanghai and London stock exchanges.

China also promised to open its market to UK products, including agricultural products.

But the fallout of the visit is far from being guaranteed, said Fraser Cameron, from the Brussels-based EU-Asia Center

"It's an illusion to think that China will save British economy," he told EUobserver.

He pointed out that Germany's exports to China were five times higher, and that when Chinese leaders "look at the size of the country, the UK is way down the list of their priorities, after the US, Japan and the EU."

He also insisted that while the British economy is dependent on services, China is not willing to open its market in this area.

"There's not a great deal to put down on paper" after May's three-day trip, he said. "It will take years to materialise."

Three weeks after a visit by French president Emmanuel Macron, in which he boasted that France and Europe "are back", May's China trip presented a different image.

"China knows that Macron is the future, that he is in a stronger position than Merkel, and than May," Cameron said.

May and the Chinese leadership repeatedly used the expression "golden era of UK-China relations" – a phrase coined during Xi's visit to the UK in 2015, a year and a half before the Brexit vote.

But now, Cameron noted, "the Chinese are really concerned that they are no longer able to see the UK as a bridge to the EU single market."

Chinese authorities also estimate that the UK is not in a strong position to negotiate.

"To mitigate the impact of a potential Brexit cliff edge, Britain is under immense pressure to consolidate bilateral trade relations beyond Europe," the state agency Xinhua noted on the onset of May's visit.

By repeating the 'golden era' motto, May "is covering up her weakness and the fact that there will be no great depth in the relationship."

'Auntie May'

Compared to her predecessor David Cameron, who hosted Xi in 2015, May was "much more cautious" about China, Fraser Cameron said.

 He noted that as former home affairs minister, "she has a better idea of what China is up to."

She is also less enthusiastic than Cameron about China's giant infrastructure project, the 'One Belt and One Road'.

During his visit in January, Macron praised the project but insisted on reciprocity from the Chinese side.

Similarly, in Beijing, May "welcome[d] the opportunities provided by the Belt and Road initiative", but refrained from signing an official memorandum of understanding about the project.

"She wants to see China live up to what Xi is talking about," Cameron said.

The British PM, who also insisted on developing cultural ties and education partnerships with China, nevertheless earned signs of personal appreciation.

Chinese media called her 'Auntie May'.

"I'm honoured by that," she said, when a Chinese journalist told her it meant that she was "one of the members of the family."

Analysis

Macron's Chinese 'game of influence'

On his recent visit to China, the French president tried to take advantage of Beijing's 'divide and rule' EU approach and become the country's main interlocutor with Europe - while also calling for more EU coordination.

EU draws red line on UK customs deal

Britain cannot keep its EU trade perks if it quits the customs union, the European Commission has warned as Brexit talks resume.

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