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China premier visits UK to boost trade

LONDON--Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrived Monday in Britain for a visit that includes an unusual meeting with Queen Elizabeth II and talks aimed at boosting fragile diplomatic relations.

The three-day visit — Li's first since he became premier 15 months ago — is expected to focus on trade and investment cooperation in areas including nuclear power, high-speed railways and finance. It will also aim to rebuild political ties that have cooled since Prime Minister David Cameron met with the Dalai Lama in 2012.

Writing in The Times newspaper, Li said one of the goals of his trip was to “present the real China so as to change misperceptions and ease misgivings.”

Officials have indicated that trade, not thorny political issues, will drive Li's visit. As part of efforts to smooth ties, Britain's Home Office announced Monday that it is launching a service to grant Chinese visitors visas within 24 hours. Businesses and tour agents have been clamoring for Britain's strict visa rules to be relaxed, saying they are turning away valuable Chinese business.

Relations between the two countries have gradually improved after Cameron led a major trade mission to China in December, signing trade deals and attempting to ease the diplomatic strain since he met with the Tibetan spiritual leader — a move that Beijing said amounted to supporting Tibet's independence from Chinese rule.

But signs of tension remained, and a China-Britain human rights meeting was called off in April after a British government report on China's rights record angered Beijing.

Much of the media focus has centered on Li's meeting with the queen Tuesday, after reports circulated that China had threatened to cancel the trip unless Li was granted the audience.

The reports by the Times and others could not be verified. Nonetheless, experts say the decision to grant Li the meeting even though he is not a head of state was a politically significant gesture that showed how keen Britain is to woo the Chinese.

“It's a way of softening the atmosphere,” said Kerry Brown, a professor of Chinese Politics at the University of Sydney.

Li's predecessor, Wen Jiabao, did not meet with the queen when he visited in 2011.

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British Prime Minister David Cameron, left, shakes hands with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang outside 10 Downing Street in London on Tuesday, June 17. Li met Cameron for talks at his Downing Street office, aimed at boosting economic links and warming ties that were frozen over Tibet on the first full day of an official three-day visit. (AFP)

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