British Prime Minister visits China to boost trade ties after chill over Dalai Lama

BEIJING, China – British Prime Minister David Cameron oversaw the signing of agreements in areas from legal assistance to space exploration during an official visit to China that replaces one earlier scrapped by Beijing in retaliation for his meeting with the Dalai Lama.

Cameron was leading Britain’s largest-ever trade mission to China, with six government ministers and representatives from business, universities and the health care sector on a three-day visit that started Monday.

Cameron was expected to voice support for a deal to free up trade between China and the European Union, China’s largest trading partner. Such a deal could be worth up to 1.8 billion British pounds ($2.95 billion) a year to the British economy, according to the U.K. government.

Economic exchanges with Britain were held up after Cameron met last year with the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled Buddhist leader, whom China reviles as a separatist. Those exchanges were restored only in October following London’s assurances that Cameron had no further plans to meet the 78-year-old cleric.

Cameron met with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on Monday and oversaw the signing of 10 agreements that included a treaty on legal assistance in criminal matters, a pact on space exploration co-operation, and agreements on enhancing bilateral investment and developing China’s use of gas.

Separately, an agreement was announced to expand the British Premier League’s program to train Chinese coaches and referees and to boost co-operation between it and China’s top-flight Super League.

Cameron told Li the delegation was interested in building trade relations.

“We particularly want to explore all the opportunities of economic openness, openness of Britain to Chinese investment, which we’ve seen huge amounts of in recent months and years, but also the opportunities for further opening our trade relations,” Cameron said.

Neither leader mentioned the Dalai Lama meeting in their statements after the signing ceremony, although Li said China appreciated Britain’s respect for its “core interests and its major concerns.”

Cameron said discussions should include “those issues where we have differences,” and said Britain looked forward to holding a human rights dialogue with China early next year.

“We should approach these with mutual respect and understanding, as we did today,” Cameron said.