British minister to visit China for first time since freeze on Hinkley Point nuclear power scheme

Britain’s minister for Asia, Alok Sharma, will become the first official from the country to visit China since the deferral of a decision on Hinkley Point power station, London announced.

Sharma will meet Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to discuss Britain and China working together to solve global issues, “build economies of the future” and develop strong trade and investment links, according to the announcement.

Sharma would also discuss new energy technologies and investment and open an office promoting British tourism during his three stops in Beijing, Shenzhen and Guangzhou.

For China and Britain, some special relationships more special than others

With China’s economic clout growing, China and Britain are boosting economic ties, particularly after President Xi Jinping’s visit to Britain last year. But with the new British government under Prime Minister Theresa May delaying the decision on the £18 billion (HK$180 billion) Hinkley Point nuclear power project late last month, doubts have been cast not only on the future Sino-British nuclear cooperation, but also on economic engagement between two countries.

There has been Western speculation that China General Nuclear Power, which was to pay a third of the cost of the plant, might steal nuclear secrets from the US.

British critics have also voiced economic and environmental objections to the plant.

Cui Hongjian, a European affairs analyst at the China Institute of International Studies, said Sharma was likely to mainly focus on further entering Chinese markets, but that discussion of Hinkley Point would be inevitable since the power station plan was seen a symbol of a “golden era” in Sino-British relations.

“The new British government needs to reach out further for cooperation with China, especially after Brexit,” said Cui, referring to Britain’s decision to leave the EU. “Theresa May has to carefully give reasonable explanations to restore China’s confidence while calming British concerns.”

Long Jing, another specialist on European issues, from the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, said Chinese officials would definitely talk about Hinkley Point with Sharma, but that his visit would not be enough to clear the obstacles to the project.

Sino-British ties at ‘crucial juncture’ after delay in Hinkley Point nuclear plant deal, warns Chinese ambassador

Long added that Britain’s geopolitical importance to China had been downgraded because of Brexit.

“Britain can no longer play an important role within Europe after Brexit. If China has to choose between Britain and Europe for more profits, Europe would be the choice.”

Statistics show trade between China and Britain is at record levels. British exports to China have grown 57 per cent since 2010, and China is expected to be Britain’s second-largest foreign investor by 2020.

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