LONDON — U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May on Tuesday pledged to challenge Beijing to stick to international trade rules and tackle the dumping of cheap Chinese steel as she makes her first visit to the country as prime minister.
Speaking ahead of a three-day visit to the country, May said the U.K. wanted to deepen its ties with China as it left the European Union but insisted this did not mean it would shy away from areas of disagreement.
The prime minister, who will be accompanied by her husband Philip for the first time on a visit outside Europe, said she would push for greater commitments from the Chinese to adhere to international economic rules and standards as it continued to “open up” to the world.
May’s trip to China comes amid continuing unrest in the Conservative Party at home, with speculation mounting over her future. The prime minister chaired a meeting of her fractious Cabinet Tuesday morning before traveling to Heathrow for her flight to Wuhan — China’s main university town.
May will hope the visit provides some respite from her problems at home as she seeks to find a consensus on the U.K.’s future relationship with Brussels amid deep disagreement in her Cabinet and party.
A series of business deals are expected to be signed during the trip, which May and her International Trade Secretary Liam Fox will hold up as examples of the positive future that lies ahead for the U.K. after Brexit.
Yet, there is a tension at the heart of the emerging U.K.-China relationship following May’s appointment as PM, replacing David Cameron, who promised to build a new “golden era” between the two countries. One of May’s first acts was to pause an agreement for China to part-build the proposed new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point, Somerset.
Her remarks, warning China to respect international rules if it wants to trade with the West, while couched in the meekest possible terms, will risk irritating Beijing.
In comments briefed ahead of her flight to China, May said: “The U.K. and China will not always see eye-to-eye. But as partners committed to global free trade we can work together to confront and tackle challenges that affect all of our economies. So we will continue to look at what more can be done to tackle global overcapacity in sectors such as steel, and to ensure that, as our companies innovate and develop new products, they are confident that their intellectual property and rights will be fully protected.
“We also need to protect the rules-based approach that underpins and enables robust, sustainable, free-flowing global trade. As we have long argued, all major economies have a special responsibility to show leadership on this front, demonstrating that we respect the rulebook and collaboration through the WTO as we seek to open markets and embrace new opportunities.
“I want to step up our relationship with China as it opens up its markets, spreads its prosperity and embraces free trade. And I want to see that this happens in a way that protects our values, ensures global security, and advances the multilateral system and the rules for which we have fought so hard.”