David Cameron will cast himself as China’s biggest commercial ally in Europe by backing Beijing’s calls for a free trade deal with the EU in spite of scepticism about China’s readiness to open up its own markets.
The prime minister will today meet Li Keqiang, Chinese premier, in Beijing on the beginning of a three-day visit to the country. He is accompanied by the biggest trade mission Britain has ever sent to China.
His visit is intended to draw a line under a spell of icy relations with Beijing that followed a meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2012. He will use his meeting with Premier Li to back the idea of an EU-China free trade agreement, which Beijing has called for as part of a deal that is aimed at increasing bilateral trade to $1tn by 2020.
In an article for the Chinese weekly business publication Caixin, Mr Cameron said: “Britain is uniquely placed to make the case for deepening the European Union’s trade and investment relationship with China.”
He will call for tariffs to be reduced on 20 sectors, including vehicles, pharmaceutical, mechanical and electrical goods, and which account for 36 per cent of UK exports to China.
EU policy makers want a free trade deal with China in the long term. But there are deep misgivings in some EU countries about the impact of cheap Chinese imports and scepticism about whether Beijing would be willing to open its markets.
Mr Cameron’s decision to push Brussels on the subject shows the importance he attaches to the trading relationship with China. UK exports to the country have lagged behind Germany, France and Italy.
The prime minister has been criticised over his willingness to prioritise trade over other concerns, including human rights.
Additional reporting by Alex Barker in Brussels