China's top diplomat to visit Britain amid Brexit uncertainty

BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s top diplomat will visit Britain this week for regular talks and a meeting with Prime Minister Theresa May, China’s Foreign Ministry said on Monday, amid uncertainty about the process of Britain leaving the European Union.

Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi delivers a speech at the Reception for the 45th Anniversary of the Restoration of the Lawful Seat of the People's Republic of China in the United Nations, at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China, October 25, 2016. REUTERS/Kenzaburo Fukuhara/Pool

Britain has been a popular choice for Chinese investment, with many firms seeing it as a springboard for the far larger European Union market.

But those plans could be at risk with the concerns surrounding what kind of market access Britain will get in future, given its vote in June to leave the EU.

State Councillor Yang Jiechi, who outranks the foreign minister, will be in Britain from Monday to Wednesday for a regular dialogue on strategic issues, ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a daily news briefing.

He will also meet British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, and talk about a range of issues, not just Sino-British ties, Hua said, adding she could not predict whether Brexit would directly come up.

“But China’s position on this is very clear. Brexit is an issue for Britain and the EU. We hope that they can appropriately handle the issue via talks and consultation,” Hua said.

“For China, we believe that Britain is a great country with important international influence. We hope to work hard with Britain to further promote the development of relations.”

Diplomatic sources say China has been seeking clarity from Britain about its Brexit plans, nervous about what it means for Chinese companies in particular.

May has said she will trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the formal process of leaving the EU, by the end of March to start two-year exit talks.

However, her plans for those negotiations have been shrouded in secrecy and businesses and investors fear Britain might seek a “hard Brexit”, where controlling immigration takes priority over access to the European single market.

Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Robert Birsel