Katherine Haddon, AFP, Yahoo News UK, 20 October, 2015
LONDON: China’s President Xi Jinping starts a four-day state visit to Britain on Tuesday as Prime Minister David Cameron’s government rolls out the red carpet in a bid to build closer business links.
Xi will stay with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, enjoy a state banquet and visit Downing Street, Cameron’s country residence Chequers and even Manchester City football club.
Cameron’s office says the visit will secure trade and investment deals worth more than £30 billion (40 billion euros, $45 billion) and lead to the creation of more than 3,900 jobs.
Despite the lavish reception which both sides say heralds a “golden era”, there are fears that the desire to boost Britain’s economy through Chinese investment means Cameron will not press Xi hard enough on human rights.
Groups including Amnesty International and Free Tibet are planning protests for the state visit, starting with one during the carriage procession through central London on Tuesday.
“This is going to be a very important moment for British-Chinese relations,” Cameron said ahead of the visit. “It’s a real opportunity to deepen our relationship.”
Cameron’s spokeswoman told reporters Monday that “nothing is off the table” and insisted that he would raise human rights with Xi.
“By developing a strong and engaged relationship with China based on an approach of constructive engagement, that means we are able to talk to them about issues where we might differ,” she said.
The Times newspaper’s cartoon on Monday showed Cameron standing on a red carpet and bowing so deeply to Xi that he ended up burying his head in the ground.
Prince Charles, heir to the throne and a supporter of Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, will not attend Tuesday night’s state banquet, though he will take tea with Xi earlier in the day.
“I’m shocked that we’re sacrificing our values of human rights and democracy and freedom of speech for simple trade,” Fabian Hamilton, chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Tibet and an opposition Labour MP, said at an event protesting against the government’s stance on Monday.
– ‘Crucial strategic significance’ –
Britain says the visit will lead to commercial deals in a range of sectors including financial services and energy, open up export opportunities for British business and draw investment in infrastructure projects.
Reports suggest two Chinese groups could take a stake in the Hinkley Point C nuclear plant project in southwest England, while China is also expected to invest in the Northern Powerhouse — a scheme to boost business in northern England.
The visit coincides with a crisis in Britain’s steel sector that is cutting hundreds of jobs, which many observers blame on low prices for Chinese steel.
Following criticism from Labour, Cameron promised to take the issue up with Xi during their talks.
Britain’s courtship of China is being masterminded by finance minister George Osborne, Cameron’s closest ally and a favourite to succeed him as prime minister, who spent five days in China last month.
While Britain’s economy is growing, Osborne is currently implementing a package of austerity measures as he seeks to reduce a record deficit.
The visit comes amid increasing evidence that China’s economy, the world’s second-largest, is slowing down. Official figures Monday showed it grew 6.9 percent in the third quarter of this year — its slowest pace since 2009.
But Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist at analysts IHS Global Insight, called the visit “a very important strategic opportunity to further build bilateral economic and political relations”.
“China is still forecast to become the world’s largest economy by 2027, overtaking the US,” he added.
“Therefore UK Prime Minister Cameron’s initiatives to strengthen bilateral economic ties between China and the UK are of crucial strategic significance”.
The Chinese-British relationship has been rehabilitated since Cameron met the Dalai Lama in 2012, sparking an angry response from Beijing.