British PM in China on hunt for lucrative trade deals

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British Prime Minister David Cameron launched a visit to China on Tuesday determined to win trade deals to boost his country's fragile economy -- but differences over human rights could overshadow the trip.

Cameron -- plus 43 bosses from major British companies and four ministers in Britain's largest-ever delegation to China -- says he wants to take his country's ties with the world's second-biggest economy "to a new level".

In an article for the Wall Street Journal, Cameron said he expected to see "new contracts worth billions of dollars" signed during his two days in Beijing, which come ahead of the Group of 20 summit in Seoul starting Thursday.

Cameron's longer-term target is to double the level of trade between Britain and China by 2015, from last year's 51.8 billion dollars (37.3 billion euros).

But efforts to build lucrative ties with Beijing on his first official visit to China could be eclipsed by increasing calls for him to issue a stern rebuke to Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao on their human rights record.

Cameron is the first Western leader to visit China since jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on October 8 -- an honour hailed in the West but decried by Beijing as tantamount to "encouraging crime".

Liu, 54, was jailed in December for 11 years on subversion charges after co-authoring Charter 08, a bold petition calling for democratic reform in one-party China that has been widely circulated online and signed by thousands.

In the Wall Street Journal piece, Cameron said he would raise difficult issues such as human rights "with respect and mutual understanding, acknowledging our different histories."

British officials declined to specify which particular cases Cameron wanted to discuss with China's leaders.

That approach may not be enough to silence increasing calls for a tougher line.

On the eve of Cameron's visit, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, an outspoken critic of the Communist government, insisted that Western leaders on trade trips to China must publicly air rights issues.

They "must insist on human rights issues, that it is inadmissible for citizens to be imprisoned because they think differently," said Ai, who was placed under house arrest at the weekend but freed late Sunday.

Further heightening tensions, countries including Britain have said they will not heed a Chinese call for Western diplomats to steer clear of the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony in December.

Last year, Britain's previous government strongly condemned the execution of British national Akmal Shaikh for drug smuggling in China.

Going into the visit, Cameron was instead keen to emphasise the potential gains for Britain, not the sticking points.

"We aim to deliver more than 40 specific agreements across the whole range of our bilateral relationship, from trade to low-carbon growth, to cultural and education initiatives," he wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

Such deals would be concluded in a bid "to take Britain's relationship with China to a new level and to achieve strong cooperation on our shared economic and political interests," he said.

Cameron's trip comes as his coalition government, which took power in May, searches for new sources of economic growth after unveiling the deepest public sector spending cuts in decades last month.

His ministers are battling to tackle a record deficit of 154.7 billion pounds (249.3 billion dollars).

Early examples of deals signed include a 45-million-pound, five-year agreement for British companies to export breeding pigs to China and the construction of 50 new English-language schools in China by Britain's Pearson.

In a bid to highlight the opportunities for British companies in China, Cameron's first visit was to a supermarket run by Tesco, the world's third largest retailer, in south Beijing.

Tesco has 99 outlets in China and plans a two-billion-pound investment in the country over the next five years.

The British premier was due to hold talks and have an official banquet with Wen on Tuesday. He will meet Hu and attend a business summit on Wednesday.

© 2010 AFP

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