LONDON -China’s President Xi Jinping was to address Britain’s Parliament and dine with Queen Elizabeth II on Tuesday as he began a state visit to cement the close economic ties between the two countries – a trip that risks being overshadowed by concerns about the effects of Chinese competition on the British economy.
Britain splashed out a welcome full of tradition and pomp for the Chinese leader’s four-day visit, driving Xi the half mile (1 kilometre) to Buckingham Palace, where he and his wife will stay, in a gilded carriage drawn by white horses.
Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan were greeted by the queen, her husband Prince Philip and dignitaries including Prime Minister David Cameron at Horse Guards parade ground near Buckingham Palace. The Chinese leader was welcomed with a 41-gun artillery salute before inspecting ranks of Grenadier Guards, who were decked out in scarlet tunics and bearskin hats.
Thousands of people lined the route along the Mall to see Xi go by, and demonstrators from human rights and pro-Tibet groups jostled with a much larger group of Xi well-wishers, whose chants of “China! China!” drowned out their rivals.
Britain’s Conservative-led government has been courting China, the world’s second-largest economy, for years. When Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, paid a state visit to Britain in 2005, the countries announced $1.3 billion in trade deals. This time, Britain said the nations would sign 30 billion pounds ($46 billion) in business agreements.
Cameron has said the visit heralds a “golden era” between the two countries – a charm offensive welcomed by many.
Talon Li, a Chinese finance student at Greenwich University, stood with classmates along the Mall to welcome Xi and support closer ties between the two countries.
“It’s great,” he said. “U.K. and China will really help each other. They should stay friends – every British and Chinese person can be friends.”
Cameron is under pressure to raise the issue of China selling steel at a loss on world markets. Plunging world steel prices and a strong pound have pushed Britain’s steelmakers into crisis, with 1,200 layoffs announced Tuesday at Tata Steel just weeks after 2,200 jobs were lost at SSI’s plant in northeast England.
Tata said the layoffs at plants in northeast England and Scotland were in response to “a shift in market conditions caused by a flood of cheap imports, particularly from China, a strong pound and high electricity costs.”
The timing of the announcement seemed intended to pressure Britain’s government to address Britain-based producers’ complains about cheap Chinese steel.
China also is set to build a new nuclear power plant in southwest England, and Treasury chief George Osborne has struck deals he says will make London’s financial district a bridge between China and Western markets. Last month he announced an agreement for the People’s Bank of China to issue renminbi-denominated short-term bonds in London – the first time this has been done outside China.
The deals have sparked accusations Britain is pandering to China to secure investment. Opposition politicians are urging Cameron to raise China’s human rights record in his several meetings with Xi.
Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond insisted Britain was “developing a mature relationship with the Chinese.”
“I don’t think we are naive,” he told the BBC.
But James McGregor, a China expert at consulting firm APCO, said Beijing would not respect a country that did not stand up to it.
“If you act like a panting puppy, the object of your attention is going to think they have got you on a leash,” McGregor said.
China’s first couple will have a private lunch with the queen and a tour of the Buckingham Palace Picture Gallery before Xi meets with heir to the throne Prince Charles, his son Prince William and opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Later Tuesday, Xi will address lawmakers at Britain’s Parliament and attend a banquet hosted by the queen at Buckingham Palace.