The Prime Minister jets out to China promising “frank discussions on all issues” with her hosts, as she is accompanied by the biggest ever business delegation of executives seeking to strike new deals with the fast-growing Asian giant.
Theresa May will be accompanied by her husband Phillip and the trade secretary Liam Fox, in a series of economic meetings designed to cement a “golden era” of UK-China relations including a summit with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang.
But the PM faces an immediate dilemma over China’s strategic shift into building infrastructure across Asia and Europe – the so-called “Belt and Road Initiative”- with Number 10 saying it was vital that the plan met “international standards”.
On his recent visit to China, French President Emmanuel Macron implicitly criticised elements of the imbalances in trade.
Speaking ahead of the visit to Wuhan, Beijing and Shanghai, the Prime Minister said: “I am committed to deepening our strong and vital partnership with what is one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.
Video: China’s leader promises a ‘new era’ but what can we expect?
“We are working together to tackle global and regional security challenges such as North Korea, climate change and environmental pollution, and to develop our strong bilateral trade, investment and cultural links.
“There are huge trade opportunities in China that we want to help British businesses take advantage of.
“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.”
The discussions are believed to fall short of a push for a formal post-Brexit free trade agreement.
“It’s about trade opportunities now and in the future, and trade and investment with China has grown significantly and we expect that to grow in the future,” a UK official said.
The main focus of economic talks would be on the UK as a place for inward investment. Brexiteer backbenchers have called for large scale eradication of tariffs through leaving the Customs Union after Brexit.
Image: Philip Hammond met Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing in May
The PM will also discuss cooperation over North Korea, and possibly extending the Olympic truce on the peninsula, and she has vowed to raise human rights.
But on the eve of her trip the PM was urged by the ex-Hong Kong Governor Lord Patten to recognise “increasing threats to basic freedoms, human rights and autonomy promised during the handover 20 years ago”.
He said the PM should be able to “provide the people of Hong Kong with some assurance that our developing relationship with China, vital though it is, will not come at the cost of our obligations to them”.
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Number 10 promised that Hong Kong human rights would be specifically discussed and that rights and freedoms there should be respected.
The PM will also take the opportunity to further burnish her environmental credentials by seeing how China tries to clean up plastic pollution in the River Yangtze.