U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron called for the European Union to open talks with China on a full-scale trade deal, as the bloc seeks to curb Chinese goods that EU officials say are being dumped and subsidized.
Cameron arrived in Beijing today for the first time in three years, attempting to boost trade and move on from the diplomatic spats that have characterized his relations with China so far. He met Premier Li Keqiang and told him he wanted more liberal trade rules. At the same time, EU governments approved an agreement to curb imports of Chinese solar panels, ending the bloc’s biggest commercial dispute of its kind.
“In Europe, we’re the ones arguing for more trade, more engagement, more market access; Britain has been in the lead on these issues,” Cameron told reporters flying with him to Beijing. “It will be the normal thing in the European Union. It will be a discussion, there will be some skeptics, there will be some enthusiasts. The enthusiasts have the wind in our sails.”
Li responded by saying that China wanted to increase its investment in projects including the high-speed rail line from London to the north of England that’s opposed by many in Cameron’s Conservative Party. He was speaking at a ceremony at which the two premiers signed memorandums of understanding on infrastructure investment. China has already agreed to put money into building new nuclear plants in the U.K.
China and the EU agreed last month to discuss the feasibility of an accord aimed at boosting bilateral trade to $1 trillion by 2020 and began talks on an investment agreement. China-EU trade totaled $546 billion last year, according to the Chinese Customs Office. Talks on a trade deal between the EU and the U.S. are already under way.
The U.K. premier has previously visited China only once since taking office in May 2010, compared with three trips to India. His trip in November that year was marred by his refusal of a Chinese request to remove a poppy, worn in memory of Britain’s war dead, from his lapel. The flower has a different meaning in China, which lost two opium wars with Britain in the 19th century. Then in 2012, China said Cameron had “seriously damaged” relations by meeting the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
Cameron said he wanted to move on from these difficulties.
“It’s very important to take the China and British diplomatic relationship to a new level,” he told reporters. He said there was “nothing off limits” in Britain’s human-rights dialogue with China, while refusing to be drawn on Tibet.
The prime minister is traveling with a 100-strong business delegation on the three-day journey that will take in three cities.
He started his trip by visiting Jaguar Land Rover’s training academy in Beijing. JLR, owned by Tata Motors Ltd., signed a 4.5 billion-pound ($7.4 billion) agreement to provide 100,000 cars to the National Sales Co. in China over the next year.
Among those in the delegation are GlaxoSmithKline Plc Chief Executive Officer Andrew Witty and Tom Williams, Airbus SAS’s executive vice president for programs.
Cameron said trade talks were a good place to address some of the difficulties between the EU and China over dumping and copyright issues. “It gives you the opportunity to discuss things like intellectual property and trading standards,” he said.
John Cridland, the director general of the U.K.’s main business lobby group, the Confederation of British Industry, who’s traveling with Cameron, welcomed the suggestion of the talks.
“Increasingly we need to negotiate free-trade deals with as many partners as we can,” he said in an interview. “The size of this delegation is an indication that businesses can do business in China.”
Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne visited China in October, as did London Mayor Boris Johnson. Osborne used his trip to announce that Britain, keen to secure investment, would let China buy stakes in its nuclear power plants. He also announced the first London sale of a yuan-denominated bond by a mainland Chinese-headquartered bank.
A People’s Daily newspaper commentary at the time said an admission by the U.K. that it had mishandled the issue of Tibet had eased the way for the deals. China accuses the Dalai Lama of waging a campaign for independence, while he says he’s seeking autonomy for Tibet. Britain denied there’d been a change of stance.
The business focus of the prime minister’s trip is on construction, education, retail and food. Half the delegation comes from small businesses that the U.K. is seeking to help grow by exporting to China.
Cameron had lunch with Li and dined later with Chinese President Xi Jinping. As well as the Chinese capital, Cameron is traveling to Shanghai and Chengdu. He’ll fly home in time for Osborne’s Dec. 5 Autumn Statement to Parliament, which was postponed by a day to accommodate Cameron’s trip.