British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said Monday he welcomed China’s offer of talks on a post-Brexit trade deal as he visited Beijing to try to strengthen ties before next year’s divorce from Europe.

Hunt, appointed earlier this month, was in the Chinese capital to meet Foreign Minister Wang Yi and other top officials, on a trip that will also include stops in Paris and Vienna for talks with his European counterparts on Brexit.

Jeremy Hunt and Wang Yi. Photo: Jeremy Hunt.

“We discussed the offer made by Foreign Minister Wang to open discussion of a possible free-trade deal done between Britain and China, post-Brexit,” Hunt said at a joint press conference.

“We welcome this and said that we will explore it.”

”British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s press conference remarks in full – click to view”

Thank you Minister Wang for your hospitality. This is actually my first trip outside Europe as Foreign Secretary. And the reason I chose to come to China is because it is an incredibly important relationship for the UK. We have nearly £70 billion of trade every year, 150,000 Chinese students studying in the UK.

Our exports to China went up 32% last year alone. But as Foreign Minister Wang said, it is not just about the bilateral relations. It’s also about the way we work with China as a permanent member of the Security Council; in other parts of the UN; in international hotspots like Syria; in organisations like the World Trade Organization. And we had very comprehensive discussions about areas where we are in strong agreement such as the importance of free trade and building prosperity across the world, in upholding the rules-based international order, but also areas where we have different views such as human rights. In all cases our discussions were frank and open – we talked about absolutely everything and they were very constructive.

Two things I think of particular interests to the people back home was the offer made by Foreign Minister Wang to open discussions about a possible free trade deal done between Britain and China post-Brexit, and we said that’s something we welcome and we said that we will explore. We also brought up some important consular cases including the case that’s worrying a lot of the people in the UK of the Simpson children, and Foreign Minister Wang said that he would look into that case whilst also of course respecting the independence of the Chinese legal system.

In summary I would say China and Britain have very different systems, but we do have a lot in common. We in the UK think the rise of China, China’s economy and Chinese power, can and must be a positive force in the world. And we want to work very hard to strengthen and deepen our relationship to make sure that’s the case.

Britain is assessing its post-Brexit trade options. London is already moving ahead with plans to negotiate a free-trade deal with the United States as soon as it leaves the European Union, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox said last week.

It also was revealed last week that May was sending ministers to the 27 other member states of the EU to try to broker back-door agreements after Brussels’ chief negotiator Michel Barnier raised reservations about her Brexit plan.

Jeremy Hunt. File photo: GovUK.

An agreement in principle on Britain’s departure from the European trading bloc — set for March 29, 2019 — must be reached before a Europe summit in mid-October.

Hunt said he and Wang had “very constructive” talks in Beijing but neither gave any further details.

Hunt said that during their talks he also raised the issue of Briton Michael Simpson, who was stabbed to death by his estranged Chinese wife in Shanghai late last year, according to British media reports.

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Simpson’s two young children are in the custody of his wife’s family now that their mother has been jailed.

Simpson’s British family has been trying to obtain custody of the children but have been stymied by the courts and the wife’s relatives, according to the BBC and other reports.

“We also raised consular cases, including that of the Simpson children. Foreign Minister Wang said he would look into that case while also still respecting the independence of China’s judicial system,” Hunt said.

Hunt was due to meet Premier Li Keqiang later in the day.

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