On her first visit to China as Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May will try to reassure Beijing that she wants to strengthen ties despite her delay on a decision over whether to approve a Chinese-backed nuclear power plant in southwestern England.
The visit marks a testing point for relations that seemed on the upswing just months ago. While the mood in Beijing is that a post-Brexit Britain needs China more than ever, such assurances may be long in coming.
May’s predecessor David Cameron heralded a “golden decade” in bilateral ties, but he quit after Britain voted in June to separate from the European Union.
In a perceived slight to China, May abruptly launched a review into the Hinkley Point C power plant project that Beijing is counting on to boost its nuclear technology exports.
Chinese leaders will be looking for signs that May is “going to go ahead with it like before,” an unlikely prospect given that the project is under review until this fall, said Steve Tsang, professor of contemporary Chinese studies at Britain’s University of Nottingham.
“I would expect that she would really want try to use this opportunity to reassure the Chinese that Hinkley Point C doesn’t mean that (Britain) does not want a good relationship with China,” said Tsang.
“It’s a very wide-ranging relationship; there are many different dimensions to it. It shouldn’t all hang on something like Hinkley Point.”
May, who will be attending this weekend’s G20 summit in the eastern Chinese resort city of Hangzhou, has already dispatched an envoy to assure Beijing that she looks forward to working more closely with China in economic, trade and global affairs.
The Hinkley Point C plant, to be built by French energy giant EDF with backing from China General Nuclear Power Corp., would be Britain’s first new nuclear facility in 20 years and would seek to address its future energy needs.
China’s government-run nuclear industry is based on foreign technology, but has spent two decades developing its own with help from Westinghouse Electric Co., France’s Areva and EDF and other partners.
A separate export initiative is based on an alliance between Westinghouse and a state-owned reactor developer.
Although the reason for the Hinkley Point C’s review hasn’t been revealed, critics say it’s a bad financial deal for Britain.
The plant’s technology is untested, and serious concerns remain about a Chinese state-owned company investing in key infrastructure that could give Beijing major political leverage in the event of a conflict.