British Prime Minister David Cameron arrived in China yesterday saying he wanted to lay the ground for a multibillion-dollar free-trade deal between Beijing and the EU, despite growing unease about his own country’s membership of the bloc.
On a three-day visit with about 100 businesspeople, the largest British mission of its kind ever, Cameron said he wanted his country to play an important role in China’s expansion as it talks about opening up its markets.
“China’s transformation is one of the defining facts of our lifetime... I see China’s rise as an opportunity, not just for the people of this country, but for Britain and the world,” Cameron told reporters after meeting Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (李克強) at the Great Hall of the People.
“Some in Europe and elsewhere see the world changing and want to shut China off behind a bamboo curtain of trade barriers. Britain wants to tear those trade barriers down,” he said.
Cameron’s push for an EU-China trade deal will irritate the European Commission, which is understood to oppose such a move on the grounds that it risks flooding the 28-nation bloc with cheap Chinese imports and comes as the bloc is embroiled in a dispute with Beijing over solar panel exports.
It is also likely to be seized upon by rivals as he has put a question mark over Britain’s EU membership by promising a referendum on leaving the bloc if re-elected in 2015.
“I’ve said to Premier Li that I will champion an EU-China trade deal with as much determination as I’m championing the EU-US trade deal,” Cameron said.
Li said both sides agreed to fight protectionism and push for trade and investment liberalization. He said China welcomed Britain’s open attitude to Chinese investment, especially in the nuclear power sector.
He added that Beijing wanted its nationals to go to Britain for economic activity and tourism.
“This will be good for China and bring even more employment opportunities for Britain,” Cameron said.
Li added that there had been a “breakthrough” between companies on both sides on high speed rail, but gave no details.
Cameron’s office said he was the first European leader to champion such a deal and had discussed the issue with other EU member states. Such a deal would address services liberalization and better intellectual property rights protection.
The British prime minister told reporters on the plane to Beijing he knew the idea was not popular in all EU member states, but said it could be a chance to tackle Beijing on intellectual property rights and trading standards.
“It’ll be the normal thing in the EU which will be a discussion where there will be some skeptics. There will be some enthusiasts and I think the enthusiasts have the wind in our sails,” he said.
Campaigners have often accused Cameron of putting trade before human rights. On this trip, activists want him to raise what they describe as rights abuses in Tibet.
A senior source in his office said before the trip that Britain had turned the page on a rift with China over Tibet, adding that Cameron had no plans to meet the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader-in-exile, again after their meeting last year angered Beijing.
Cameroon was non-committal on the plane about raising Tibet, but said nothing was “off limits” in relations with China.
Cameron visited a training academy for Jaguar Land Rover sales staff yesterday to mark its opening as the carmaker unveiled a deal worth ￡4.5 billion (US$7.38 billion) to provide 100,000 cars to the National Sales Company in China.