‘I love China,’ Boris Johnson tells Xi Jinping in phone call covering belt and road projects and coronavirus, among other issues

Stuart Lau

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has told President Xi Jinping that Britain welcomed Chinese investment under Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, a geopolitical move that will probably further upset the Trump administration.

Proclaiming “I love China” in their phone conversation – a phrase mentioned by Chinese state media but not the official account released by the prime minister’s office – Johnson displayed a cosiness with Beijing that contrasts with his hardline approach to the European Union amid Brexit trade talks.

In another move that will unnerve Brussels, Xi said in a separate phone call with the president of Croatia – which currently holds the EU presidency – that China seeks to deepen ties with Central and Eastern European countries.

Johnson’s pledge to stay close to China on international issues comes after his government refused to heed Washington’s request to impose a ban on Huawei Technologies, giving the Chinese tech giant a share in Britain’s next-generation 5G mobile networks.

Xi, in return, reassured Britain that China’s economy was still in good shape, as he attempts to prevent a decline in business confidence amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Xi’s calls with Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron and Croatian President Zoran Milanovic struck a balance in reaching out to both sides of the Brexit debate.

But his call with Johnson was the most far-reaching, covering not only China’s efforts against the coronavirus, but climate change, China-Britain relations and multilateralism.

“Britain welcomes investment from Chinese companies,” Johnson told Xi, according to Chinese state broadcaster CCTV. “We would like to strengthen our cooperation with China under the Belt and Road Initiative.”

The US has accused China of neocolonialism with its multibillion-dollar investment blueprint to extend geopolitical, commercial and strategic interests across the globe.

Johnson also told Xi that Britain and China shared “similar stances on many international issues”, supported free trade and sought to safeguard the multilateral trading system.

The statement by the prime minister’s office did not mention Hong Kong as a topic of discussion.

Xi’s conversation with the Croatian leader was more brief, with Xi describing Croatia as “China’s good friend within the European Union”.

Xi Jinping to take over as host of ‘17+1’ summit with European leaders

The EU has been sceptical of the “17+1” arrangement started by Beijing in 2012, a platform made up of China and 17 Central and Eastern European countries, seeing it as an attempt to split up EU countries, a claim China has rejected.

Macron’s discussion with Xi focused entirely on the coronavirus outbreak, with the French leader pledging to continue providing medical equipment. Macron also highlighted the fact that the French consulate in Wuhan – the epicentre of the contagion – remained in operation.

“It looks as if Xi was trying to posit China as impartial amid the ongoing Brexit talks – and also trying to do business with both sides afterwards,” an EU diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

In his messages to France and Britain, Xi stressed the strength of the Chinese economy.

“The impact of the outbreak on the Chinese economy is temporary,” he told Macron. “I believe that, with our effort, we can realise the economic and social development targets and mission this year that have already been set out.”

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