China-EU relations

China open to talks on free-trade deal with post-Brexit Britain, visiting Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt says

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi says two sides agreed to ‘join each others’ development strategies, expand trade and investment’

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 July, 2018, 10:34am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 July, 2018, 8:22pm

China offered Britain talks on a post-Brexit free-trade deal on Monday, as it remains mired in an increasingly bitter trade war with the United States.

Beijing has been looking for allies in its fight with Washington and the Trump administration, which has accused China’s hi-tech industries of stealing intellectual property from American firms and demanded Beijing act to buy more US products to reduce a US$350 billion trade imbalance.

Britain has pushed a strong message to Chinese companies that it is fully open for business as it prepares to leave the European Union next year, and the world’s second-biggest economy is one of the countries with which London would like to sign a post-Brexit free-trade deal.

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Speaking to reporters in Beijing after meeting British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the two countries agreed to increase trade and investment.

Hunt said Wang made an offer “to open discussions about a possible free-trade deal between Britain and China post Brexit”.

“That’s something that we welcome and we said that we will explore,” he said, without elaborating.

Hunt said before the meeting that, “The United Kingdom and China are both major powers with a global perspective. As the UK leaves the EU and becomes ever-more outward-looking, we are committed to deepening this vital partnership for the 21st century.”

Wang, standing beside Hunt at a state guest house in the western suburbs of Beijing, made no direct mention of the free-trade talks offer but said the two sides had “agreed to proactively join each others’ development strategies, and expand the scale of trade and mutual investment”.

China and Britain should also oppose trade protectionism and uphold global free trade, Wang said.

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While a trade pact with China would be a political win for Britain’s government, formal talks cannot begin until it officially leaves the EU next year. Free-trade talks typically take many years to conclude.

Britain is assessing its post-Brexit trade options. London is already moving ahead with plans to negotiate a free-trade deal with the United States as soon as it leaves the European Union, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox said last week.

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It also was revealed last week that British Prime Minister Theresa May was sending ministers to the 27 other member states of the EU to try to broker back-door agreements after Brussels’ chief negotiator Michel Barnier raised reservations about her Brexit plan.

During her visit to China in February, May secured commercial deals worth £9 billion (US$12 billion).

An agreement in principle on Britain’s departure from the European trading bloc – set for March 29, 2019 – must be reached before a European summit in mid-October.

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Hunt’s predecessor Boris Johnson quit earlier this month in protest at the government’s plan to maintain a close trading relationship with the European Union after Brexit, a strategy that Johnson said would make it much more difficult to do free-trade deals.

After the China summit Hunt is expected to travel to Paris and Vienna for further talks with his European counterparts on Brexit.

Additional reporting by Agence-France Presse