- Meeting with Xi would have been opportunity to confirm deal
- French officials nervous that U.K. is dropping nuclear deal
Theresa May won’t be using her trip to the Group of 20 talks in China to announce her decision on the Hinkley Point nuclear-power project, a U.K. official said, in the latest sign that Britain’s new prime minister is preparing to block the deal.
May will arrive in Hangzhou, China, on Sunday for what is both her first international summit and Britain’s first appearance on the world stage since the country voted in June to leave the European Union.
“I’ll be talking to other world leaders about the opportunities for trade around the globe that will open up for Britain following Brexit,” May said at Heathrow Airport before departing on Saturday. “My ambition for Britain is that we should be a global leader in free trade.”
She will emphasize that the country can be a dependable partner, according to an official speaking on condition of anonymity before the trip.
The statement may lead to raised eyebrows from her host, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and her fellow guest, French President Francois Hollande. Both were caught out in July when May said she needed more time to think about Hinkley Point, a proposed 18 billion-pound ($24 billion) plant that would be developed by Electricite de France SA and one-third funded by state-owned China General Nuclear Power Corp. Hollande’s government is concerned the deal is going to fall through.
The official said that May still plans to announce her decision in September, and that neither Xi nor Hollande had any reason to expect her to say something during the G-20.
Central to the debate are Hinkley’s growing costs and security issues related to China’s involvement in such a strategic industry. May has spent the last six years as home secretary, responsible for counter-terrorism and counter-intelligence. In China, authorities see Hinkley as the start of a series of atomic projects in the U.K. that will serve as a shop window for future exports.
Nick Timothy, one of May’s two chiefs of staff, wrote a year ago that China’s involvement could allow the government in Beijing to “shut down Britain’s energy production at will” in the event of a conflict. China General Nuclear Power Corp. was charged in federal court by U.S. authorities last month with conspiring to steal nuclear secrets.
It wasn’t initially clear whether May’s delay was simply because she was new in the role and hadn’t considered the project, or because she had fundamental doubts about it. But a visit to China would have been a good opportunity to announce the deal would go forward, so her reluctance to speak suggests she has serious questions.
Hollande and his advisers have since July repeatedly sought reassurances that the project will proceed and failed to get firm commitments. For France, Hinkley Point is “an exceptional opportunity,” Finance and Industry Minister Michel Sapin said at a press conference Thursday.
The project also is of strategic importance for China, which would follow up its investment with a minority stake in a second nuclear plant at Sizewell and then a majority holding in another at Bradwell. Both projects in eastern England may deploy Chinese reactors.
When Xi visited the U.K. last year, May’s predecessor David Cameron said relations between the two countries were in a “golden era.” The U.K. official denied this would be threatened if Hinkley Point were canceled, saying that Britain’s relationship with China wasn’t defined by one energy project.
May repeated Cameron’s line on Saturday: “This is a golden era for U.K.-China relations and one of the things I will be doing at the G-20 is obviously talking to President Xi about how we can develop the strategic partnership that we have.”
May will also have one-on-one meetings with U.S. President Barack Obama, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who told Bloomberg this week that ties with the U.K. haven’t been “the best lately” and will only improve if May rethinks her country’s closeness to the U.S. and conducts a “more independent foreign policy.”