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China Angered By Britain's Delay In Approving Nuclear Power Deal


As recently as last year, China and Britain seemed to be on their way to becoming best friends. But the warm rhetoric between the two chilled the past couple of weeks. The U.K., in a surprise move, delayed approval for a nuclear power plant. This plant is supposed to be built at Hinkley Point in the southwest of England with billions of dollars in Chinese and French funding.

This week, China's ambassador to the U.K. warned London must approve this project swiftly or else. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports on the shifting relationship between one of America's chief rivals and one of its most important friends.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Last year, then-Prime Minister David Cameron said Britain and China were starting over. Here's how he put it when Chinese President Xi Jinping came to London.


DAVID CAMERON: So this visit marks the start of a new era. Some have called it a golden era in relations between Britain and China, an era of stronger economic ties, deeper trade links...

LANGFITT: China analyst Jonathan Fenby says the rhetoric was really flowery.

JONATHAN FENBY: Everything was going to be absolutely wonderful. Britain was going to be China's best friend in Europe. China was going to finance not just Hinkley Point but high-speed trains and the regeneration of the north of England.

LANGFITT: Enter Theresa May, the U.K.'s new prime minister who has a background in homeland security. Late last month, her administration said it wanted to take a second look at Hinkley Point. Fenby, who is China director for Trusted Sources, a research service, says May wants to make sure the $23 billion project makes financial sense and doesn't threaten Britain's independence.

FENBY: The security consideration is not so much the kind of "James Bond" - will the Chinese put some bugs in the computer system? It's more depending on a foreign supplier for the money and, eventually, for the technology for your nuclear power. You are giving them control over quite an important part of the country's future.

LANGFITT: May's move surprised and angered the Chinese. This week, Liu Xiaoming, China's ambassador in London, wrote ominously in the Financial Times that ties between the two countries were at a crucial juncture and mutual trust should be treasured. Xiaolan Fu says companies like China General Nuclear Power Corporation, which plans to help fund Hinkley Point, face more scrutiny than other foreign firms because they're owned by China's government. Fu is a professor of technology and international development at the University of Oxford.

XIAOLAN FU: There are some discrimination against the Chinese investments because there are some implicit assumption - is always - investments are national strategy-driven instead of business-driven or market profit-driven.

LANGFITT: Do you think that that's unfair?

FU: I think it's unfair.

LANGFITT: Perhaps. But it doesn't help that a China General Nuclear engineer was indicted this year on nuclear espionage charges in the U.S. Washington's been unhappy with Britain's cozying up to China and will probably welcome May's more cautious approach.

KERRY BROWN: The Americans will think that it's an opportunity for the U.K. to come to its senses (laughter).

LANGFITT: Kerry Brown is director of the Lau China Institute at King's College London.

BROWN: If Theresa May does, you know, sort of not go ahead with this project or if she places new conditions and tighter conditions on it, I think the American government on the whole would probably be supportive and feel that, you know, the golden era was a bit reckless, wasn't very well thought through and was quite irritating to them.

LANGFITT: Most observers, though, don't expect May to kill the deal. With the United Kingdom heading out of the European Union, the British economy needs friends and investment, especially firms with deep pockets like those owned by the Chinese government. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.