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British PM Theresa May writes to China’s Xi Jinping in hope of improving trade ties

British Prime Minister Theresa May has written to China’s leaders expressing her desire to improve economic ties with Beijing, her first minister for Asia says amid uncertainties after a delay in a joint nuclear plant project.

Alok Sharma, who is on his first official visit to China, told Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Monday that Britain valued its cooperation with Beijing and saw the country as its “major global strategic partner”, according to a statement posted on the Chinese foreign ministry’s website late on Monday night.

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In her letter to President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, May said Britain would support China’s presidency to hold the G20 and expected to improve cooperation on trade and global issues with Beijing, the foreign ministry’s statement said.

Britain’s messages to China come as bilateral ties seem uncertain in the wake of a decision last month by May’s new government to defer the building of an £18 billion (HK$180 billion) nuclear power plant project.

The Hinkley Point power station project had earlier been described by President Xi Jinping as a “flagship programme” of the gold era of bilateral ties between Britain and China.

London and Beijing have been boosting economic ties, particularly after Xi’s visit to Britain last year.

But with the delay of the project, doubts have been cast not only on the future of Sino-British nuclear cooperation but also on economic engagement between the two countries.

In Beijing on Monday, Wang told Sharma that China would continue its efforts to communicate and coordinate with Britain.

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

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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 as 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 discuss Hinkley Point with Sharma, but that his visit would not be enough to clear the obstacles to the project.

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.”

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During his trip in China, 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, Britain’s Foreign Commonwealth Office said on Monday.

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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