On China visit, Britain's May focused on post-Brexit future

British Prime Minister Theresa May, center left, and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, center right, listen to a speaker during the inaugural meeting of the UK-China CEO Council at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, Pool)

British Prime Minister Theresa May has called for expanding the "global strategic partnership" between the United Kingdom and China at the start of a visit focused on working out new trade arrangements once Britain leaves the European Union

BEIJING — British Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday called for expanding the "global strategic partnership" between the United Kingdom and China, at the start of a visit to the world's second-largest economy focused on hashing out new trade arrangements once the U.K. leaves the European Union.

Meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, May referred to "a golden era" in relations between the two countries that London hopes will bring vast amounts of new job-creating investment from China's fast-growing global firms.

"This is an auspicious time of the year to ... think about and consider how we can build further on that golden era and on the global strategic partnership that we have been working on between the U.K. and China," May said.

Officials oversaw the signing of a raft of agreements covering trade — including the import of British food products to China — investment, education and other areas. More than 155,000 Chinese students now study in the U.K., according to the British government.

Brexit appeared to figure prominently in the talks and May said that as Britain prepares to leave the EU "we are committed to deepening our strong and vital partnership" with China.

"And that relationship is indeed broad and deep and delivers benefits to both countries," May said.

As Britain prepares to leave the EU, "we will become a country that is able to operate an independent trade policy and is able to sign free trade agreements around the rest of the world," she said at a later question-and-answer session with Li.

Li said Brexit would not change the basic trading relationship.

"In EU-U.K. relations. We will have assessments and discussions in our trade relationship to take it forward," Li said.

As she makes her China visit, May's job is under threat from rivals within her Conservative Party, who are divided over whether to make a clean break with the EU or seek to keep the closest-possible economic relationship.

May insisted to reporters flying with her to China, "I'm not a quitter."

She said there was "a long-term job to be done" by her government, according to the Press Association news agency.

"That job is about getting the best Brexit deal, it's about ensuring that we take back control of our money, our laws, our borders, that we can sign trade deals around the rest of the world," she said. "But it's also about our domestic agenda."

In her meeting with Li, May said the two countries, both permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, were also cooperating on North Korea and other security challenges. North Korea's nuclear weapons program, she said, is "illegal, reckless and poses an unacceptable threat to international security."

Li said they also discussed overcapacity in the steel industry, while May said an agreement had been reached to open China to imports of British beef this year. Business deals worth more than 9 billion pounds ($13 billion) would be announced before the end of the visit, May said.

May also expressed support for British involvement in the "Belt and Road" initiative, China's mega-plan for trade and infrastructure links across Asia.

However, she said related projects needed to adhere to established global business practices. Beijing has been criticized for undermining those rules by agreeing to finance major infrastructure projects on condition they were awarded to Chinese companies without entertaining bids from competitors.

"We've discussed how the U.K. and China will continue to work together to identify how best we can cooperate on the Belt and Road initiative across the region and ensure it meets international standards," May said.

"We will work together to encourage free and fair trade, ensure a transparent, rules-based multilateral trading system, and build an open global economy that works for all."

May first visited the central industrial city of Wuhan on Wednesday before traveling to Beijing for talks with Li. On Thursday, she is scheduled to meet with President Xi Jinping, whose 2015 state visit to Britain helped propel what China refers to as the golden era in ties.

May is being accompanied on her visit by 50 British business leaders, including the chief executives of Jaguar Land Rover and drug firm AstraZeneca. She will also visit the financial hub of Shanghai before heading home Friday.

Bolstering ties with China became more urgent after Britain voted in 2016 to leave the EU, compelling it to forge new trade agreements outside of the 28-nation bloc.

British exports to China are up 60 percent since 2010, and China is expected to be one of the U.K.'s biggest foreign investors by 2020.

British finance minister Philip Hammond visited in December, pledging to promote London as a center for transactions in China's yuan currency and announcing up to 25 billion pounds ($35 billion) in support for British businesses involved in the Belt and Road initiative.

But May appears more cautious about embracing Chinese investment than her predecessor, David Cameron. She annoyed Beijing in 2016 by temporarily delaying approval for a Chinese-backed nuclear power plant in southwestern England.

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Associated Press writers Jill Lawless and Danica Kirka in London contributed to this report.

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