LONDON — The United Kingdom welcomed Chinese President Xi Jinping to London on Tuesday with a ride to Buckingham Palace in a horse-drawn gilded carriage. The queen was his seatmate.
On Wednesday, Xi is expected to repay the elaborate hospitality by getting down to the real business of his state visit: doling out massive quantities of cash.
The visit is expected to net billions of dollars’ worth of Chinese investment in British projects including high-speed rail networks and advanced scientific research. It’s part of a substantial deepening of British-Chinese ties that recently prompted Prime Minister David Cameron to cite the “very special relationship” between London and Beijing — a description that may prompt some in Washington to wonder where that leaves the merely “special relationship” across the Atlantic.
But of all the deals set to be unveiled this week, none is raising more hackles than an agreement that will make China a key investor in the first nuclear power plant to be built in Britain in a generation. While construction of the reactor will be French-led, the deal is also likely to include provisions for two additional nuclear facilities, including one designed and built by state-owned Chinese firms.
The extensive Chinese involvement in British nuclear energy production would be unthinkable in other Western nations, and it will represent China’s first substantial foray into nuclear energy in Europe. Critics say it could leave Britain compromised — vulnerable both to cyberattacks against its infrastructure and to diplomatic extortion given the influence China could wield over U.K. energy supplies.
“How do we quantify the risk of allowing China to take over critical national infrastructure?” asked Bernard Jenkin, a member of Parliament from the governing Conservative Party. “The United States would never contemplate it.”
Jenkin, who represents an area of southeastern England where the Chinese-led reactor is slated to be built, said the government is ignoring concerns within the military and intelligence services regarding the national security implications of the deal.
“I don’t think the government wants to hear it. It’s too inconvenient,” he said. “This is a dash for capital.”
Government officials brush off such criticism, pointing out that the plant slated to be approved this week will be designed and built by a French-owned company, with the Chinese as investors.
“We welcome Chinese investment in this country, just as there is British investment in China,” Defense Secretary Michael Fallon told Parliament on Monday.
Plans for an additional reactor — this one designed and built by Chinese state-owned entities — will still have to overcome significant hurdles, even if Xi and Cameron announce a breakthrough this week in negotiations.
None of the reactors is expected to be up and running anytime soon, with 2025 viewed as the earliest possible completion date for the French-built plant in an area of England known as Hinkley Point.
The timeline for that reactor has repeatedly slipped, and the cost has ballooned to a staggering $38 billion. Rather than abandon the project, however, British officials have doubled down on it, providing substantial guarantees that put British taxpayers and consumers on the hook for the project’s costs.
The price of the energy ultimately generated from the plant, for instance, has now been set at “the equivalent of an oil price north of $250 a barrel,” said Peter Atherton, an energy analyst at Jefferies investment bank. “Is that still value for money?”
British and Chinese officials have offered cooperation in nuclear energy as an example of what the two countries can achieve together as part of what Cameron has described as a new “golden era” in relations.
Britain is eager for the sort of cash infusions that only China can supply, and it sees Beijing as a critical driver of the U.K. economy for decades to come. China wants access to London financial markets as well as the reputational boost that comes when a democracy at the heart of Western security is willing to overlook human rights abuses and aggressive military posturing in the interest of doing business.
“ ‘Made in Britain’ and ‘Made in China’ are being morphed together a little bit,” said Robin Niblett, director of the London-based think tank Chatham House.
But Niblett said there are risks in that strategy, including the danger that Britain alienates the country that for decades has been its closest partner: the United States.
Britain’s decision to cozy up to China also threatens to undercut London’s stance on human rights. Most British officials pointedly avoided the topic on Tuesday, and protesters who lined the parade route to Buckingham Palace were drowned out by far more numerous and boisterous supporters of the Chinese president.
But at least one senior British official may have taken a silent stand on the issue. Prince Charles, who met with Xi privately Tuesday morning, is known to be a friend of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. When members of the royal family convened Tuesday night to fete Xi with a banquet, the heir to the throne was conspicuously not among them.
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly described a reactor planned for an area represented by Parliament member Bernard Jenkin. The reactor is proposed for southeastern Enland and would be led by Chinese companies. This version has been updated.
Karla Adam contributed to this report.