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Page last updated at 06:47 GMT, Thursday, 22 January 2009

Britain and China 'to co-operate'

By Jonathan Marcus
Diplomatic Correspondent, BBC News

First Marks and Spencer store opens on mainland, Shanghai Oct 08
Britain hopes for more business, and more rights observance, in China

Britain is to make improving relations with China a "major priority" in the years ahead, the foreign secretary is to announce.

In a new document, David Miliband says the UK will be "candid" when it disagrees with China, but will build a relationship based on co-operation.

The paper, published on Thursday, will stress the importance of economic ties between the two countries.

Chinese premier Wen Jiabao is due to visit European capitals soon.

The 20-page framework document launched by Mr Miliband stresses the importance of economic ties between the two countries and emphasises China's growing role in international affairs.

It represents a sort of stock-taking of ties between London and Beijing.

And it sets out a lengthy series of aspirations for the direction and way in which Sino-UK ties should develop over the next four years.

In a foreword the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, says that "Britain, Europe and the rest of the world can benefit from China's rise".

Britain's experience of "creating a society based on accountability, rule of law, and human rights", he says, is relevant to China as it goes through massive social change."

And he urges Beijing "to make progress in these areas".

Sales pitch?

But why a document like this and why now?

Clearly its publication just ahead of a visit to European capitals, including London, by the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is probably no accident.

It is hard to disguise the obvious economic sales pitch to Beijing.

As Gordon Brown notes, over the next decade, China will present more opportunities for British businesses "than any other country".

There is extensive mention of China's growing role in the world, its potential contribution to easing global warming, and the importance - to use the American formulation - of making it a responsible stake-holder in international society.

The explicit criticisms of China's human rights record are couched again in aspirational terms: the hope being that in four years China "abolishes or at least greatly reduces detention without trial"; that it "substantially reduces the application of the death penalty" and so on.

The problem is that these formulations may be so bland as to offend human rights activists, while still being written off as an unwarranted intrusion into its domestic affairs by the authorities in Beijing.

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