Opinion / Chris Peterson

Xi gives May clear message of understanding

(China Daily UK) Updated: 2016-09-07 17:01

So finally it's happened. Newly installed UK Prime Minister Theresa May went to the G20 Leaders Summit in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou and met with President Xi Jinping.

There were firm handshakes and what most commentators agree was a workmanlike and courteous bilateral meeting.

There has been much wringing of hands at China's supposed "fury" over May's decision to review the Hinkley Point nuclear power plant, a French-designed, 18 billion pounds ($24 billion) project in southwest England to be part-funded by China.

Anyone who honestly believed that Xi, a courteous man, would be breathing smoke and fire simply doesn't understand modern China or its leadership.

Instead of veiled threats, the British delegation received the clear message that Xi and his team understood perfectly that as a newly installed government, May and her ministers needed time to reflect on various current projects before reaching a considered position.

Indeed, Xi seems to have gone much further, making it clear that Britain and China should negotiate a comprehensive trade deal as soon as possible after the UK leaves the European Union.

Don't forget, after years of trying, China has failed to pin down the hugely bureaucratic and politically divided EU for a trade deal. It must be like trying to round up sheep without a sheep dog.

There have been sneering comments in some UK papers about May's use of the words "golden era" to describe UK-Sino relations, a phrase used by her predecessor, David Cameron, and his chancellor, George Osborne.

But that's how China thinks, and that's how things are viewed.

There is undeniably a huge surge in Chinese investment in the UK, whether it is in real estate, infrastructure or the financial markets.

I can remember a huge surge in US investment and influence in Britain, too, followed by that of the oil-rich Arab nations.

Have we suffered? No. Have we prospered? Yes.

Is there any reason why the same shouldn't happen with China? Of course not.

As officials from both countries have intimated, UK-Sino relations aren't just about Hinkley Point.

But it is an undeniable fact that it is there, problems have arisen since the original deal was put together, and the UK would be failing in its duty to its Chinese partners if these weren't addressed now rather than later.

First, this particular French technology is still not fully proven. An identical reactor at Flamanville in France has run way over budget and is beset by technical problems. A similar plant in Finland is also way behind schedule and way over budget.

Second, one member of the board of state-controlled EDF has quit and five others are taking legal action to try to halt the deal. They claim May had already told French President Francois Hollande she would delay approval pending a review before the EDF board ratified the deal, and they weren't told.

Third, the French trade unions, a powerful force in that country and not afraid to use their muscle, say they don't like it, because they fear EDF, which is already overstretched, will suffer a financial crisis.

And there was, to me, an air of desperation in the way. France tried to take advantage of May's brief time in the job by trying to railroad the deal through.

President Xi's advisers understand all this.

The author is managing editor, Europe for China Daily. Contact him on

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