British PM heads to China seeking big trade deals

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British Prime Minister David Cameron arrives in China Tuesday with some 50 top business leaders seeking to win lucrative deals and strengthen ties on his first official visit to the economic powerhouse.

The two-day trip, featuring Britain's largest-ever government delegation to China, comes as Cameron, like other Western leaders, hunts new sources of economic growth while imposing deep spending cuts after the financial crisis.

Since taking power in May, he has vowed "closer engagement" with China, the world's second biggest economy, and put "banging the drum for trade" at the heart of his foreign policy, notably with a trip to India in July.

The British premier, who is being accompanied by four of his top ministers, will meet President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao in Beijing. Talks are likely to cover the economy, trade, education and energy.

With the trip coming before the G20 summit in Seoul from Thursday, the leaders should also touch on thornier issues such as Western claims China is deliberately holding down its currency's value, plus global trade imbalances.

But it may be clouded by a row over Western diplomats' attendance at the ceremony awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to jailed Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo.

Ahead of the trip, though, Beijing echoed Cameron's enthusiasm for taking Sino-British relations to fresh heights.

"It is fair to say that China-UK relations are faced with new opportunities for development," Qin Gang, deputy head of the Chinese embassy in London, told reporters.

"I am sure this visit will help to raise our relations to a new level. Both sides place high priority on this visit."

Beijing wants to capitalise on British expertise -- particularly in sectors like high-tech manufacturing, new technology and low carbon industries -- and has indicated a series of agreements will be signed on the trip.

China sealed trade deals with France worth 20 billion dollars (14 billion euros) in sectors including aviation and energy during last week's state visit by Hu.

Cameron recently described as "shocking" the fact that Britain currently exports more to Ireland than to Brazil, Russia, India and China -- the BRIC group of top emerging economies -- combined.

While China's economy is growing at breakneck speed, Britain, like many other Western powers such as the United States, is proceeding sluggishly.

China's economy grew 9.6 percent in the third quarter of this year, compared to 0.8 percent for Britain, which emerged from recession at the end of 2009.

"China represents the biggest source of demand in the world for many of the products that we in the UK have to offer," Business Secretary Vince Cable said in a statement on Sunday.

"This makes it a very lucrative market for our businesses, and thousands have now taken the leap abroad and become highly successful in regions across China."

Cameron's government is cutting public sector spending by an average 19 percent over four years in most departments as it bids to slash a deficit of nearly 155 billion pounds (180 billion euros, 250 billion dollars).

This has prompted some experts to voice fears that growth could slow still further.

Human rights are also likely to be an issue during the trip.

China has warned ambassadors from other countries against attending the award ceremony for Liu in the Norwegian capital Oslo next month.

Britain's Foreign Office confirmed that the Chinese "have raised the issue with us" but stressed its ambassador intends to attend as usual.

Amid headlines in Britain over the house arrest of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, whose work is currently being showcased at London's Tate Modern gallery, Cameron is facing calls to raise human rights in talks with China.

His coalition government has vowed to "stand firm" on rights across its foreign policy.

Cameron's utterances on China have not always been without controversy.

During this year's general election campaign, he was accused of slurring China with a foreign policy gaffe by trying to justify Britain's retention of the Trident nuclear weapons programme with reference to Beijing.

"Are we really happy to say that we'd give up our independent nuclear deterrent when we don't know what is going to happen with Iran (and) we can't be certain of the future in China?" he said during a televised debate in April.

© 2010 AFP

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