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U.K. Moving Forward With China Ties Post Brexit, Official Says

  • British trade chief in Hong Kong says preliminary talks held
  • Trade agreement with Hong Kong could also be in the works

U.K. officials have held preliminary talks with China about establishing a trade agreement following the Brexit vote, Jo Hawley, director of trade and investment at the British Consulate-General in Hong Kong, said Thursday.

"We hope that coming out of the EU gives us an opportunity to look at free-trade agreements with other countries," Hawley said at a Hong Kong University of Science and Technology seminar. "We’re very keen to push that forward with the Chinese in particular. China is the big prize."

At the Group of 20 summit in Hangzhou, China, earlier this month Chinese President Xi Jinping told U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May that China was open to bilateral trade talks. The U.K. government on Sept. 15 approved the so-called Hinkley Point plan, allowing Electricite de France SA and China General Nuclear Power Corp. to build two nuclear reactors in southwest England.

While Britain can’t make any trade agreements with other governments until its exit from the EU is made official, preliminary talks are being held. The U.K. can’t agree to a free-trade agreement “until we’ve left the European Union, so at the moment we can only do the preparatory work," Hawley said.

Hong Kong

She said her team had held discussions with Gregory So, Hong Kong’s secretary for commerce and economic development, and visiting U.K. officials had spoken to ministers in the Hong Kong government. A spokeswoman for So’s office did not immediately comment.

"We took Jeffrey Mountevans, the Lord Mayor of the City of London, to see various ministers and said we would really welcome opening discussions about free-trade agreements, and they were very warm and keen to be among the first group that we take that forward with,” Hawley said. “Likewise, my colleagues have been in to discussions in mainland China."

She said negotiations on a China-EU trade deal had been very difficult and had not led to a deal. "We feel we would be able to agree on one because it’s easier as an individual country rather than as the big bloc to keep everybody happy."

At the same event, Nobel economics laureate Christopher Pissarides said the Brexit vote is likely to have an impact on Chinese investment in the U.K.

"Buying into the residential sector and property in general in the U.K., if anything, will be encouraged by the lower value of the pound," he said. "But buying long-term into industry the way the Japanese did 20 or 30 years ago, I think, will be put on hold until we know what kind of arrangements there will be after the event."

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