Chinese President Xi Jinping heaped praise on Britain for what he called a “visionary and strategic choice” to strengthen commercial ties with China, as he prepared for a state visit to the United Kingdom that’s expected to be richer in pomp and considerably warmer in tone than his recent trip to the United States.
The trip comes at a time of global anxiety about China’s slowing growth. Xi himself acknowledged “concerns about the Chinese economy”, but sought to allay them.
China itself is worried about the slowing of the broader global economy, Xi said, even while he expressed confidence that China would weather the current downturn as it reshapes its economy to be more resilient in the future.
That confidence will be on display when Xi arrives in London on Monday evening to kick off a four-day visit that is expected to cement ties between Britain and China, including through a host of business deals.
“The UK has stated that it will be the Western country that is most open to China. This is a visionary and strategic choice that fully meets Britain’s own long-term interest,” Xi said in a written response to questions.
“China looks forward to engaging with the UK in a wider range, at a higher level and in greater depth.”
Xi’s visit comes amid debate in Britain and many other Western countries over what is the best way to engage with a Communist-ruled China that has grown more influential economically and diplomatically, but which maintains stances in areas from human rights to the South China Sea that are often at odds with those widely held in the West.
Such tensions were on display when Xi visited the United States last month, with friction over issues from cyber theft to China’s maritime disputes with its neighbors at the center of discussions.
Xi’s visit to Britain, during which he and his wife Peng Liyuan will stay at Buckingham Palace as guests of Queen Elizabeth II, is expected to be much warmer, with Xi saying it could be the start of a “golden time” in bilateral relations.
Britain was the first Western nation to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) earlier this year, leading to a stampede of other countries signing up and marking an embarrassment for Washington, which had been pressing its allies not to join.
At the time, Britain said joining the AIIB at the founding stage would “create an unrivalled opportunity for the UK and Asia to invest and grow together”.
British finance minister George Osborne set the tone with a preparatory visit to China last month, when he courted Chinese investment into Britain and won praise from Chinese state media for having the “etiquette” not to press human rights issues.
Still, Xi’s visit, the first state visit by a Chinese president since 2005, will not be without potentially awkward moments. Newly installed opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn intends to bring up the issue of human rights when he meets Xi, his official spokesman has said.
Xi called on Britain and other countries to avoid what he characterized as bias against Chinese companies, as Beijing supports firms in fields from high-speed rail to nuclear technology in their efforts to compete for contracts overseas.
“Competition is necessary for a business to grow, and no one will give away a market to its rivals,” Xi said in comments provided in English. “We hope that such competition is benign and market-based. There should be no swing doors or glass doors which are placed as non-economic or non-market-based barriers.”
One deal expected to be inked during Xi’s visit is a plan for two state-owned Chinese utilities to invest in a 16 billion pound ($25 billion) nuclear power project being built by French utility EDF at Hinkley Point in southwest England.
Xi also underscored China’s readiness to strengthen financial cooperation with London, which aims to be an important hub for yuan trading and offshore yuan business and is set to be the first location outside China and Hong Kong to host the issuance of Chinese central bank and finance ministry debt.
“When conditions are in place, China is ready to consider strengthening the connectivity of the financial markets of the two countries,” he said.