1 Sep 2016

Beijing’s warning shot for Theresa May over Hinkley

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 25: Liu Xiaoming attends as The Duke Of York visits China Town for the inauguration of the Chinese Gate on July 25, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Luca Teuchmann/WireImage)

Liu Xiaoming in London’s Chinatown (Getty)

The state newspaper was being handed out at Victoria Station this morning. Not a sign of Theresa May’s bracing approach to political debate but a shot across her bows by Beijing.

These were English-language copies of the state China Daily and they included a clear warning from China’s Ambassador to London that Theresa May has a big decision ahead of her on nuclear power.

The celebrations to launch Hinkley Point nuclear power station, part-funded by the Chinese government, were suddenly put on hold at the end of July when Theresa May asked for time to review the decision.

Whitehall sources say she was uncomfortable with the way the deal tied Britain to commissioning a Chinese-designed and built nuclear power station further down the line at Bradwell as part of the deal to get money from China to help to build the French-designed Hinkley power station.

BRIDGWATER, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 12: The sun sets behind Electricite de France SA's (EDF) (L) Hinkley Point B, and (R) Hinkley Point A nuclear power stations besides the Bristol Channel near Bridgwater on November 12, 2013 in Somerset, England. EDF, who last month announced it was to construct a new plant at Hinkley Point after reaching a deal with the U.K. government, said today that energy bills will rise by 3.9 percent on average. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

The Hinkley Point A and B nuclear power stations (Getty)

Politicians and officials closely involved in that original negotiation are adamant that the Bradwell carrot was essential to get Chinese buy-in for Hinkley.

One of them told me: “There will be a massive U-turn, she’ll have to accept the deal.” China’s not so sure yet.

In today’s China Daily, Liu Xiaoming, ambassador here since 2010, feels it necessary to warn Theresa May: “I hope that Britain will continue to be pragmatic and stay open to Chinese business.”

And he writes those words at the end of a paragraph listing recent Chinese investment in the UK: housing projects in Sheffield, water conservation funding and the decision to go ahead with direct flights to London from Tianjin and Chongqing.

He urges “wise strategic choices and strong, far-sighted leadership” on Theresa May. He didn’t mention Hinkley Point specifically though he did in an earlier opinion piece in the FT back in August.

China (and the rest of us) have a bit longer to wait before we know Theresa May’s decision. When she meets President Xi in China at the G20 starting this weekend China won’t be expecting a definitive answer on the Hinkley question.

The Government said it would come to a decision by the end of September and this weekend isn’t very far into September. But they’ll be looking for clues and applying pressure, probably in very similar language to that used by their Ambassador.

One veteran diplomat told me if you want to know how China would react to a cancellation remember how long we were “in the doghouse” after David Cameron met the Dalai Lama and “cube it.”

Britain’s Ambassador in Beijing was ostracised for much more than the “few months” the FCO predicted and David Cameron grew deeply irritated that a trade-focused PM wasn’t allowed to visit China, candidly recalled in Anthony Seldon’s book “Cameron at 10”.

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