Agence France Presse

London, May 10:

Visiting Chinese premier Wen Jiabao was set to hold talks today with British prime minister Tony Blair against a backdrop of protests over Tibet. Wen, who has been making his first tour of European capitals since taking office in March 2003, arrived yesterday, and his trip is expected to see the finalising of trade and investment contracts worth hundreds of millions of pounds. Some 150 protesters rallied outside the Chinese embassy in London overnight Sunday, waving Tibetan flags in a protest at Wen’s visit, his first to Britain as China’s head of government. Iraq was likely to be high on Blair and Wen’s agenda, given that Britain and China are both permanent members of the UN Security Council, where a fresh resolution on postwar Iraq is in the making. But their talks were liable to hit rough water on the subjects of human rights, Tibet and the former British colony of Hong Kong, where Beijing last month ruled out the introduction of full democracy in 2007.

Bill Rammell, the Foreign Office minister with responsibility for East Asian issues, said today that economic considerations would not inhibit Britain from speaking out on human rights issues. “It is important, obviously, that we have a trade relationship with China,” said Rammell, “We are talking about a country that in 15 years’ time will be the second biggest economy in the world and it would be foolish and not in our national interest if we weren’t seeking to develop our trade relationship.” Besides Blair, Wen is to meet deputy prime minister John Prescott, foreign secretary Jack Straw, international development secretary Hilary Benn and trade secretary Patricia Hewitt. Straw will also meet separately with his Chinese counterpart Li Zhaoxing. After his London stay, premier Wen is to proceed to Ireland — which currently holds the rotating EU presidency — to conclude an 11-day long tour of five European states, accompanied by an 80-strong economic delegation.