A woman attends a welcoming ceremony to mark the inaugural trip of the first freight train to travel from China to Britain on January 18, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Stefan Wermuth
A woman attends a welcoming ceremony to mark the inaugural trip of the first freight train to travel from China to Britain on January 18, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Stefan Wermuth

When Theresa May lands in China on Wednesday it will be the first official visit by a British Prime Minister in five years. The last was by her predecessor, David Cameron, in 2013, when he arrived with 120 businesspeople. That was described at the time as Britain’s “biggest ever” trade delegation, befitting Cameron’s equally grand economic target of doubling the volume of UK-China trade by 2015.

Trade has increased – but by nowhere near that amount. Cameron’s trip was, though, the first tangible step in what, by 2016, was being described as a “golden relationship” of bilateral trade. Now, with the countries’ plethora of trade deals as yet undelivered, that relationship is reported to be in jeopardy this week over Beijing’s insistence that May’s government give official endorsement to China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

It could be the start of an absorbing diplomatic tussle. Britain is weakened because of Brexit, and desperate for strong trade partnerships. May herself has been on the sharp end of sustained criticism – from her own Conservative party, and others – over her purported lack of purpose and direction, both on domestic issues and on Brexit. Talk has surfaced again about how much longer she will be in office. She desperately needs some good news.

Aware of all this, China has, in recent months, seemed very keen on getting the UK to rubber-stamp BRI, which President Xi Jinping views as “the project of the century.” But in recent weeks and months, BRI has come under increasing scrutiny and criticism – from the USA, India, Germany and France, among others – with regard to China’s real agenda.

Xi Jinping greets Theresa May before a meeting at the G20 Summit in Hangzhou on September 5, 2016. Photo: AFP / Etienne Oliveau

French President Emmanuel Macron, in his early January trip to China, made a point of saying China and Europe had to work together on the Belt and Road, arguing that if the initiative was “one-way” it could not work. “After all, the ancient Silk Roads were never only Chinese,” said Macron.

So, not for the first time, May finds herself between a rock and a hard place.

May had to postpone this trip to China on a number of occasions due to  her pressing domestic agenda, but ostensibly the trip was first arranged because London and Beijing have, since last year, said they will sign a free-trade deal when the UK leaves the EU in 2019.

With that in mind, May will arrive in China with her own trade delegation. It’s not as grand as Cameron’s but still significant: she travels with a 50-plus entourage of figures from British businesses, educational establishments and industry associations – ranging from representatives of the Scotch Whisky Association to directors from the luxury car maker Aston Martin. In recent days, Beijing has seemed to shift the focus sharply away from talk of a trade deal to talk of BRI.

“China has signed cooperative agreements with more than 80 countries and organizations [and] will surely continue its efforts to implement it, whether the UK supports it or not”

China’s Ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, said in an official announcement on Friday that Belt and Road discussions would be “among the highlights” of the British Prime Minister’s trip. “The Belt and Road Initiative will not only provide new growth point for China-UK cooperation,” said Liu, “but also help the ‘Golden Era’ of China-UK relations to yield more Golden fruits.”

After the Ambassador’s announcement, the Financial Times quoted UK government officials as saying the British delegation’s planned roundtable discussions with Chinese businesses executives were now “at risk of being scrapped,” after May pushed back on giving the Belt and Road any formal British endorsement.

And then, on Monday, in reaction to the FT story, China’s state-owned Global Times newspaper wrote that any western view of BRI as a political gambit by Beijing was “unnecessary paranoia.” It added that “formal endorsement from the UK for the [BRI] would be great, but there is no need for China to force the UK to do so.”

China, the newspaper concluded – in the politest of geopolitical threats – “has signed cooperative agreements with more than 80 countries and organizations” and “will surely continue its efforts to implement it, whether the UK supports it or not.”

Then-British Prime Minister David Cameron (right) and Chinese President Xi Jinping host a joint news conference following their meeting at 10 Downing Street in central London, on October 21, 2015. Photo: AFP / Suzanne Plunkett

May’s office has understandably attempted to try to contain and play down the spat. On Monday night, Downing Street would only say that the Prime Minister will find out more about BRI when she is in China. According to the FT, however, the UK’s planning for the trip has been thrown into chaos because Chinese officials have been refusing to return calls.

On key initiatives, China is famously intransigent. David Cameron learned this after he agreed to meet with the Dalai Lama in London in 2012. Afterwards, London was frozen out of trade negations and Cameron was forced to cancel a planned trip to China after it was made clear that no senior officials there would be free to meet him. Only when he stated that he would not be meeting the Dalai Lama again did  communication channels fully open again, paving the way for that 2013 trade delegation and the subsequent “golden relationship.”

David Cameron was a gung-ho risk-taking opportunist. Theresa May is not. She is more cautious and, for all her supposed faults, she appears to be driven by the belief that, ultimately, she is in public life to serve Britain. As such, she seems very reluctant to formally endorse BRI. China is very keen for her to do so. The next few days should be interesting.

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