UK 'not kowtowing to Beijing for sake of business deals'


Downing Street has rejected accusations of "kowtowing" to Beijing for the sake of commercial deals, insisting that no subject will be off the table in talks during the state visit of Chinese president Xi Jinping to the UK.

David Cameron will hold two days of talks with Mr Xi during a four-day visit expected to be dominated by significant agreements on Chinese investment in UK infrastructure as well as opportunities for British companies to seek business in the growing Chinese market.

Among the business deals set to be sealed is an accord that could see the Chinese take a key role in constructing nuclear plants at Hinkley Point in Somerset, Sizewell in Suffolk and Bradwell in Essex.

But the Prime Minister is coming under pressure to take the opportunity to raise issues ranging from human rights in Tibet and Xinjiang to China's dumping of steel on the world markets and concerns over cyber-attacks believed to originate in the People's Republic.

Mr Cameron's official spokeswoman insisted that talks in Downing Street on Wednesday and at the PM's Buckinghamshire country retreat Chequers on Thursday will cover "the full range of issues", telling a Westminster media briefing: "There is nothing off the table in our discussions with the Chinese."

Cyber-security can be expected to feature in the talks, as "a threat that is increasingly important to countries around the world, with the different forms that that can take with different actors carrying out cyber-attacks", she said.

"Developing a strong and engaged relationship with China, based on an approach of constructive engagement, means we are able to talk to them about issues where we might differ frankly and with mutual respect and we will be taking that approach during the visit this week," said the spokeswoman.

Asked whether critics were right to suggest that Mr Cameron was kowtowing to Beijing by sidelining issues like human rights and cyber-security in the interests of business deals, the PM's spokeswoman said: "I wouldn't accept that at all.

"This is about having a relationship based on constructive engagement that enables us to work with the Chinese on economic opportunities and opportunities for business, but also ... to talk face-to-face through a whole range of issues, including human rights and things like cyber-security."

Reports have suggested that British spies at listening post GCHQ are to be enabled to scrutinise computer systems at new nuclear plants built by Chinese firms to address national security fears.

A GCHQ spokesman told The Times: "GCHQ has a remit to support the cyber-security of private sector-owned critical national infrastructure projects, including in the civil nuclear sector and nuclear new builds, when invited to do so by the lead government department involved."

Asked whether the Prime Minister was happy for China to be involved in designing, constructing and operating nuclear facilities in the UK, his spokeswoman said: "Any decision about overseas investment into our infrastructure are taken on a case-by-case basis and judged accordingly, with due regard given to security concerns and the measures in place.

"We do have a robust, clear process in place for the security of things like our nuclear energy plants."

Mr Cameron has played down fears that the UK's pursuit of closer ties with China could harm relations with the US, telling China Central Television there is "no conflict" with the so-called special relationship.

The issue of human rights is likely to loom large during the visit, with the Prime Minister's former strategy guru Steve Hilton complaining that China is "run by a bunch of cruel, corrupt, communist dictators", and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn promising to raise concerns over rights when he meets Mr Xi.

Asked if the PM regarded China as a corrupt country, Mr Cameron's spokeswoman said: "There are a range of different challenges for different countries in terms of tackling corruption.

"Countries will approach these issues in different ways. Does the Prime Minister think it is important to take steps to tackle corruption around the world? Yes, he does. He has been clear about that.

"The point the Prime Minister would make - and regularly makes in bilateral meetings - is that it's also important in terms of a country's economy and its ability to secure investment and openness to the world. Businesses want to know that there is the right environment for them to pursue opportunities.

The fall in the global steel price which has resulted in job losses in Scotland and the north-east of England was "likely" to come up in the course of discussions about the global economy and the challenges of globalisation, the spokeswoman said.

"There are a number of different challenges facing the steel industry, not just in the UK but more broadly," she said.

"There have been issues raised to do with the subsidies being put in place by different countries and the different way they approach them.

"The fact of having the Chinese president here for four days, with two substantive days of discussions with the Prime Minister, will give us the opportunity to talk about these issues with the Chinese."