The Chinese premier will be given a rare meeting with Queen Elizabeth when he visits the UK next week, according to Whitehall officials. This break with official protocol demonstrates the value David Cameron places on their relationship.
Li Keqiang will fly to London for a three-day visit next week as the two countries seek to finalise the thaw in relations that has occurred in the past few months after a difficult period following Mr Cameron』s decision to meet the Dalai Lama in 2012.
The prime minister is so keen to impress Mr Li that the government has allowed the premier to meet the Queen even though he is not a head of state.
Such a privilege is rarely given, although it was granted to Angela Merkel this year when she visited the country. The fact that Mr Li has been offered the same status shows Mr Cameron sees the trading partnership with China in similar terms as the political alliance in Europe with Germany.
According to a report in The Times, Mr Li threatened to cancel the entire trip if he was not given the meeting. Downing Street did not deny this, but one official said: 「It is far from unheard of for senior world leaders to have a meeting with the Queen.」
Beijing』s brinkmanship is redolent of the hard negotiating tactics employed by the Chinese in the run-up to Mr Cameron』s visit last year. Just 24 hours before the prime minister touched down in China last December, the Chinese promised, and then cancelled a dinner with Mr Li, eventually offering a lunch meeting instead.
Downing Street』s willingness to acquiesce to such requests shows how much importance the UK is giving to the bilateral relationship, which it sees as key to helping boost British exports and foreign investment in British companies.
Ministers are hoping to get more clarity from Mr Li during his visit on whether and how China intends to invest in key UK infrastructure projects, such as nuclear power and the HS2 high-speed rail line.
But the status being afforded to the Chinese premier has also created controversy given China』s record on human rights.
Paul Golding, campaigns co-ordinator of the Tibet Society, said: 「It would seem the UK are kowtowing to China』s demands in order to curry favour. Such acquiescence must not be at the price of speaking out on Tibet and human rights.」