George Parker – Financial Times (original story here)
Theresa May will raise western concerns over President Xi Jinping’s flagship Belt and Road initiative this week, in a move that is likely to cast a shadow over her three-day visit to China.
Mrs May’s office refused to comment on whether the UK prime minister would give her formal endorsement to the plan, a key demand from Beijing for the trip.
A spokesman would only say that the project, under which China is investing in infrastructure in Asia and central and eastern Europe, could contribute to global growth if it was “well implemented”.
Mrs May’s spokesman said it was vital that the Belt and Road initiative met “international standards”. Asked if that was not the case, the spokesman said: “That is one of the things the prime minister will be talking about when she’s there.”
Downing Street is under pressure from the Trump administration not to endorse the Belt and Road initiative; the US recently said it saw China as “a strategic competitor”.
Germany and France have been similarly wary of endorsing the BRI, especially after a growing backlash in the EU over bilateral trade and investment imbalances with China.
Emmanuel Macron, French president, referred to these imbalances in a public appearance with Mr Xi this month in Beijing, infuriating Chinese officials.
BRI projects have also been criticised for their lack of financial transparency and reliance on Chinese contractors.
According to a recent study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Chinese companies received 89 per cent of contracts for Beijing-backed infrastructure projects in Asia and Europe.
Chinese officials have hit back at the criticism. “China believes it is now time to offer our own ideas about global governance,” He Yafei, a former Chinese vice-foreign minister, said last week. “[BRI] transcends ideology and national borders. But if we cannot reduce tensions, the Belt and Road will certainly suffer.”
Under David Cameron, Britain threw open its doors to Chinese investment, while former chancellor George Osborne brushed aside human rights concerns in pursuit of what he called “a golden era” in bilateral relations.
Mr Cameron is now trying to assemble a $1bn UK-China fund to invest in projects in both countries. But Mrs May is taking a more cautious approach and there have been tensions between the two countries ahead of the visit.
Mrs May’s visit to Wuhan, Beijing and Shanghai, beginning on Tuesday, is intended to boost trade between the two countries. She will travel with the bosses of 50 businesses, including AstraZeneca, Jaguar Land Rover and HSBC.
British exports to China have risen 60 per cent since 2010, falling well short of a target set by Gordon Brown in 2009 to double exports in 18 months.
Mrs May played down any tensions ahead of the trip, saying that the China-UK relationship “is already broad and deep and it delivers real benefits for both countries”. She added: “The depth of our relationship means we can have frank discussions on all issues.
“We are working together to tackle global and regional security challenges such as North Korea, climate change and environmental pollution and to develop our strong bilateral trade, investment and cultural links.”
Meanwhile, Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, urged Mrs May to address concerns about the political situation in the former colony during her visit to China.
In a letter to Mrs May’s Downing Street office, Lord Patten said that Hong Kong was facing “increasing threats to the basic freedoms, human rights and autonomy” that its people were promised at the handover to China in 1997.
The letter, also signed by former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown, urged Mrs May to “go on insisting on the continued validity of the Sino-British joint declaration and the principles of ‘one country, two systems’.”