Beijing: British Prime Minister David Cameron stressed that his country is open to Chinese investment on his first visit to China since meeting the Dalai Lama, keeping human rights to the sidelines.
Cameron, whose meeting with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader in 2012 was condemned by Beijing and led to a diplomatic deep-freeze between the two nations, emphasised business ties as he began what embassy officials called the “the largest British trade mission ever to go to China” on Monday.
Cameron also vowed to push for a free-trade agreement between China and the EU.
“Some in Europe and elsewhere see the world changing and want to shut China off behind a bamboo curtain of trade barriers,” he said. “Britain wants to tear those barriers down. No country in Europe is more open to Chinese investment than the United Kingdom.
“I will champion an EU-China trade deal with as much determination as I am championing an EU-US trade deal.”
The two oversaw the signing of 10 agreements, including deals on space exploration, media exchanges and patent protection.
Standing beside Cameron, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said there had been a ‘breakthrough’ agreement on high-speed rail development between the two countries, as well as Chinese investment in civil nuclear power, but did not give details.
Britain in October signed a landmark deal with a consortium including two Chinese state-owned nuclear firms to build Britain’s first nuclear plant in a generation.
The deal met with criticism on financial and security grounds at a time when China is engaged in a war of words with the US over state-sponsored cyber-hacking.
Other controversies include foreign companies being targeted by Chinese authorities for alleged price fixing and other violations.
Li compared Sino-British relations to a high-speed train that can “insofar as it’s safe, constantly increase its speed”.
China branded Cameron’s meeting with the Dalai Lama as “an affront to the Chinese people”, and in May this year the British premier said he did not back Tibetan independence and had ‘no plans’ to meet the Dalai Lama again.
Li said on Monday: “The UK has voiced its respect for China’s territorial integrity and sovereignty,” adding that “China expresses its appreciation.”
China has called the Dalai Lama, who has publicly renounced violence and says he seeks merely greater autonomy for Tibetans, a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” who advocates Tibetan independence.
Tibetan and other rights advocacy groups urged Cameron to raise the issue of human rights this week — a common practice for Western leaders visiting Beijing — despite recent strains in diplomatic relations.
Cameron’s three-day visit coincides with the trial of three anti-corruption activists who were detained after they called for Chinese officials to disclose their financial assets, scheduled for Tuesday in what rights groups have called part of a crackdown on dissent by the ruling Communist party.
Cameron, who at one point quoted Confucius, touched on the issue of rights by praising the ruling Communist party’s wide-ranging reform pledges after a key meeting last month, “including issues like governance and the judicial protection of human rights”.
He also mentioned British brands including Burberry and Jaguar Land Rover, shortly after touring a training academy for the car firm, which plans to produce 100,000 cars for the Chinese market in 2014.
Also announced at the outset of his trip was a deal between the English Premier League and Chinese Super League to “build up football at an elite, youth and community level” in China.
The Premier League sees China — the world’s most populous country with more than 1.3 billion people — as “having the best growth prospects in the world”, Britain’s foreign ministry said in a statement.
The business leaders reportedly accompanying Cameron include the bosses of Royal Dutch Shell, the London Stock Exchange and GlaxoSmithKline, which is the subject of an ongoing corruption investigation in China.
Chinese police in July detained British citizen Peter Humphrey, who ran a risk advisory firm hired by GSK, on suspicion of illegally obtaining private data.
He has confessed to wrong-doing on Chinese state TV, which showed him dressed in prison clothes, and remains in custody.
Cameron is expected to continue his trip with visits to China’s commercial hub Shanghai and the south-western city of Chengdu.