Theresa May has announced new education links with China as she arrives for a three-day visit to boost trade and investment after Brexit.
The initiative includes the extension of a Maths teacher exchange programme and a campaign to promote English language learning in China.
The UK prime minister has claimed her visit “will intensify the golden era in UK-China relations”.
But she has stressed China must adhere to free and fair trade practices.
In an article for the Financial Times ahead of her arrival, she acknowledged that London and Beijing did not see “eye-to-eye” on a number of issues – and she promised to raise concerns from UK industry about the over-production of steel and the protection of intellectual property against piracy.
‘Two great nations’
Other issues likely to be discussed include North Korea and climate change. It is not clear whether they will include human rights in Hong Kong.
Mrs May, who will hold talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, is travelling at the head of a 50-strong business delegation, including BP and Jaguar Land Rover, as well as small firms and universities including Manchester and Liverpool.
Her first stop, Wuhan, in central China, is home to the largest number of students of any city in the world.
The education deal includes:
- Extension of a maths teacher exchange programme for a further two years to 2020, enabling around 200 English teachers to visit China
- Joint training of pre-school staff in the UK and China
- Better information-sharing on vocational education
- The launch of an “English is GREAT” campaign to promote English language learning in China
- Education deals worth more than £550m, which it is claimed will create 800 jobs in the UK
Mrs May said new agreements signed on her trip would “enable more children and more young people than ever to share their ideas about our two great nations”, helping to ensure that “our golden era of co-operation will endure for generations to come”.
During the three-day trip, Mrs May is expected to focus on extending existing commercial partnerships rather than scoping out new post-Brexit deals.
She said she expected China to play a “huge role” in the economic development of the world, adding: “I want that future to work for Britain, which is why, during my visit, I’ll be deepening co-operation with China on key global and economic issues that are critical to our businesses, to our people, and to what the UK stands for.”
She acknowledged that her agenda “will not be delivered in one visit: it must be our shared objective over the coming years”.
Hong Kong concerns
But she added: “I’m confident that, as China continues to open up, co-operation and engagement will ensure its growing role on the global stage delivers not just for China, but for the UK and the wider world.”
In a statement ahead of the visit, a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman said Beijing saw Mrs May’s trip as “an opportunity to achieve new development of the China-UK global comprehensive strategic partnership”.
But asked whether the UK had achieved its aim of becoming China’s closest partner in the West, he replied: “Co-operation can always be bettered. As to whether China and Britain have become the closest partners, we may need to wait and see how Prime Minister May’s visit this time plays out.”
In recent years, both countries have hailed a “golden era” in UK-Sino relations.
China has signalled its desire to invest in high-profile UK infrastructure projects, including the building of a new nuclear reactor at Hinkley Point – although its involvement has raised some national security concerns.
British trade with China has increased by 60% since 2010 and UK ministers are expected to use the trip to stress that the UK will remain an “excellent place to do business” after it leaves the EU next year.
The UK has said it will prioritise negotiating free trade agreements with major trading partners such as the United States, Australia and Canada after it leaves the EU in March 2019.
Earlier this year, the UK said it would not rule out becoming a member of the Trans Pacific Partnership free-trade zone, whose members include Japan, South Korea and Vietnam and which is considered by many as a counter-weight to Chinese influence in the region.
Lord Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, has urged Mrs May to use the visit to privately raise what he says has been the steady erosion of freedoms and rights in the former British colony in recent years.
Hong Kong is supposed to have distinct legal autonomy under the terms of its handover to China in 1997.
In a letter to the PM, Lord Patten and ex-Lib Dem leader Lord Ashdown said its residents needed assurances that the UK’s growing commercial relationship with China would not “come at the cost of our obligations to them”.