LONDON – British Prime Minister Theresa May is flying to China seeking a key economic partner for post-Brexit Britain. She leaves behind a divided government, a feuding Conservative Party – and a question mark over how long she will remain leader once she returns.
May leaves Tuesday for a three-day trip, with stops in Beijing, Shanghai and Wuhan and meetings with Chinese premier Li Keqiang and President Xi Jinping. Accompanied by 50 British business leaders – including the chief executives of automaker Jaguar Land Rover and drug firm AstraZeneca – May is looking to burnish the “golden era” between the two countries announced by Xi during a state visit to Britain in 2015.
“There are huge trade opportunities in China that we want to help British businesses take advantage of,” May said ahead of the trip.
Bolstering ties with China, the world’s second-largest economy, became more urgent after Britain voted in 2016 to leave the European Union. China is key to the government’s plans for a “global Britain,” forging new trade deals and diplomatic partnerships around the world after it leaves the EU.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, China’s ambassador to Britain, Li Xiaoming, said the visit could herald the start of “Golden Era 2.0” between China and “an increasingly open and independent Britain.”
Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese politics at King’s College London, said that despite the positive talk, May’s challenge is to “inject a little dynamism into the relationship.”
“Presumably she’s going to be able to explain to them what is happening about Brexit and give them some clarity, because I think they are as confused as anyone else,” Brown said. “She’s got an opportunity to outline the ways in which we’ll be able to do things differently with China if and when we leave the EU.”
British exports to China are up 60 percent since 2010, and China is expected to be one of the U.K.’s biggest foreign investors by 2020.
British finance minister Philip Hammond visited in December, pledging to promote London as a center for transactions in China’s yuan currency and announcing up to $35 billion in support for British businesses involved in the Belt and Road initiative, China’s mega-plan for trade and infrastructure links across Asia.
But May appears more cautious about embracing Chinese investment than predecessor David Cameron, and annoyed Beijing in 2016 by temporarily delaying approval for a Chinese-backed nuclear power plant in southwestern England.
And Britain is not the only European country bidding for China’s attention and investment. French President Emmanuel Macron visited earlier this month, giving President Xi Jinping the gift of a horse and calling on France and China to “settle on an economic and geopolitical plan for the affairs of our world.”
Brown said all Western countries have limited power to influence China, and leaving the 28-nation EU will further weaken Britain’s hand.
May said she was prepared for “frank discussions on all issues,” but Brown doubted whether human rights would feature prominently in talks.
“The brute reality is that it’s a very asymmetric relationship and China has most of the cards,” he said. “We need it more than it needs us.”
“They know that they’re looking at a pretty weak prime minister,” Brown added. “She’s got a pretty hard job.”
May’s political rivals are maneuvering. She has been weakened since calling an ill-fated early election last year that saw the Conservatives reduced to a minority government. As crucial talks start on future relations with the EU, a split within her government between Brexit doubters and die-hards is coming to a head.
Pro-Brexit lawmakers are demanding May fire Treasury chief Hammond, who is considered too supportive of a compromise “soft Brexit” rather than a clean break. Potential leadership contenders, including Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson, have positioned themselves in the headlines with speeches and announcements.
There is mounting speculation that May could face a vote of no-confidence – triggered automatically if 48 Conservative legislators write to the head of a key party committee. Recent reports have claimed that the number already submitted is over 40.
Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, said divorce negotiations with the EU mean May will soon have to spell out what kind of Brexit she wants – alienating one wing of her party.
“She can’t fudge things forever,” he said. “Once she jumps one way or another, the side that feel they have lost out in that argument will try to take her down.”
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