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Brexit haunts May as she seeks China trade post-EU
[BEIJING] Hounded by Brexit rows at home, Prime Minister Theresa May was due to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday to forge deeper trade ties after Britain leaves the EU.
Mrs May began her trip with plans to announce nine billion pounds (S$16.6 billion) in business deals, an agreement to end a ban on British beef and promises to seek more trade opportunities.
But criticism in London over her domestic agenda and her handling of Britain's contentious divorce with the European Union loomed large, prompting her to declare she was "not a quitter" as she flew to China.
Brexit figured in her talks with Premier Li Keqiang at the start of her visit on Wednesday. She meets Mr Xi later on Thursday after visiting an agricultural sciences academy.
"Brexit is a situation that both our countries face," Mr Li said, reassuring her that "our bilateral relationship will not change with the changes of UK relations".
Both leaders championed a "golden era" of relations between their countries as they seek new trade opportunities.
"We are determined to deepen our trading relationship even further and we are ambitious for what our future trade relationship will be," Mrs May said.
She said they also agreed new measures to improve access to the Chinese market, including lifting a ban on British beef exports to China within six months.
In a nod to her hosts, Mrs May said "we welcome the opportunities" provided by China's cherished Belt and Road initiative, a massive infrastructure project aimed at reviving ancient Silk Road trade routes and creating greater market access for Chinese companies.
But she threw in a caveat, saying the two countries would continue to work together to ensure that the endeavour "meets international standards".
Wooing China is part of her government's broader strategy to seek deeper trade ties with countries beyond Europe's borders after Britain leaves the EU next year.
Britain runs a 25.4-billion-pound trade deficit with the Asian giant and only 3.1 per cent of British exports go to the country, according to Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist at IHS Markit.
The British prime minister was also under pressure to address the political situation in Hong Kong and human rights abuses in mainland China.
Chinese authorities have carried out a relentless crackdown on civil society since Mr Xi took office in 2012.
But she had yet to make public statements about either matter as she prepared to meet with Mr Xi.
Before her trip the former British governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, sent a letter to Downing Street saying the semi-autonomous city, which London handed back to Beijing in 1997, was facing "increasing threats to the basic freedoms, human rights and autonomy".