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World's biggest miner says Brexit would harm China view of UK

[LONDON] The chief executive officer of BHP Billiton Ltd, the world's biggest mining company, backed the campaign for Britain to remain in the European Union, saying that exiting the bloc would damage its relationship with China.

"I can tell you from my dealings with the highest level of the Chinese government that China takes Britain far more seriously because we are a major player in the EU," Andrew Mackenzie, a 59-year-old Scot, said in e-mailed comments ahead of an event hosted by the Centre for European Reform in London on Monday.

UK voters will head to the polls on June 23 to decide whether to stay or leave the 28-member state bloc. Mr Mackenzie's view echoes comments made by the UK's chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne on Friday as the 10-week referendum campaign officially got under way.

Mr Osborne warned that economic activity in Britain is already suffering as a result of concerns about voters backing a so-called Brexit. US President Barack Obama will say Britain should stay in the EU during a visit to London this week.

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China is BHP's biggest customer, with the country responsible for US$16 billion in sales and representing 37 per cent of revenue for the miner in fiscal 2015.

BHP and other mining companies are confronting a slump in commodity prices caused by slower economic growth in the world's second-biggest economy.

Foreign direct investment in Britain could decline by 22 per cent if voters choose to leave the EU, reducing incomes by about 3.4 per cent, according to research for the London School of Economics Centre for Economic Performance published on Friday.

"Brexit would inflict a blow on the EU that it can hardly afford given the Eurozone and migration crises," BHP's Mr Mackenzie said.

"British business can't afford a knock either. Brexit will come back to bite." The official Brexit campaign group, Vote Leave, unveiled its first billboard poster on Friday, which said pulling out of the bloc would make £350 million (S$674.75 million) a week available for the National Health Service.

"Britain has far more sovereignty as a member of the EU than it would do on its own," Mr Mackenzie said.

"In today's competitive world, the EU is our best hope for magnifying our voice on the global stage and protecting British sovereignty."