UK efforts to secure a trade deal with the world’s second-biggest economy are set to begin in earnest within weeks with a visit to China by Liam Fox, the international trade secretary.
Scotland on Sunday understands that plans are under consideration for a trip to China by Fox (right) as early as the start of April.
The government has made securing free trade agreements with Far East economies one of the pillars of its post-Brexit economic plan, alongside deals with the EU, Donald Trump’s US and the nations of the Commonwealth.
A spokeswoman for the Department for International Trade would not comment on ministerial travel plans, but MPs on the Commons International Trade Committee are likely to seek scrutiny of any deal with China, making recommendations on how future deals should be influenced and approved by parliament.
Whitehall has little experience negotiating free trade deals, with the EU taking responsibility for trade since the UK’s accession in 1973. Trade strategy has so far been set by Fox’s department with little input or oversight from Westminster.
While the UK by law cannot begin formal trade talks until Brexit takes effect in 2019, Fox and his officials have opened informal discussions with a number of governments.
Angus MacNeil, the SNP chairman of the international trade committee, said the UK’s trade policy since the EU referendum had been “quite opaque”.
“The UK would be a much smaller deal for China than the EU, and the Chinese will be feeling bolder because trade negotiations are effectively a game of concessions,” he said. “It’s going to matter a lot less for China than it will for the UK.”
Experts say Fox faces delicate talks to assure Beijing that the UK remains a stable partner after Brexit, particularly in the wake of Theresa May’s controversial decision to delay approval of a multi-billion pound Chinese nuclear power deal.
Efforts under the previous government to spark a “golden age” in relations had a limited impact, with Germany trading twice as much with China as the UK.
“China is concerned about the unknowns related to Brexit, primarily in terms of the impact on the global economy,” said Jane Duckett, director of the Scottish Centre for China Research at the University of Glasgow.
“The Chinese economy is slowing down, and the last thing they need is ongoing slow growth caused by problems elsewhere.
“The Chinese side will be keenly aware that Theresa May is more needy now than she may have realised. They will be alert to any opportunities to gain the upper hand with someone that wants to deal with them.”