• UK prime minister pens op-ed urging China to follow international trade rules
  • Move comes as UK PM begins official visit to improve trade relations with China
  • Reaction to column has been mixed; some claim it risks a diplomatic sleight

The British prime minister, Theresa May, has fired a warning shot to China’s government over the need to respect the rules of international trade – especially in regards to counterfeit goods. In a message published on the day she begins an official visit to China, May writes that the two countries must work together so UK businesses can be “confident that their intellectual property and rights will be fully protected”.

May arrived in China today as part of a three-day trip focused on improving trade relations. The visit is especially important in light of the UK’s impending exit from the European Union, meaning it will need to forge new trade agreements with countries around the world. On her arrival, the British prime minister called for expanding the "global strategic partnership" between China and the UK. As part of that pledge, the two countries have signed a cooperation agreement wherein China agreed to open itself up to the UK market and import British agricultural products.

Marking the official trip, May penned an op-ed in the Financial Times in which she called for China to more stringently follow international rules regarding trade. In it, she writes that “the UK and China will not always see eye-to-eye”, adding: “But as partners committed to global free trade we can work together to confront and tackle challenges that affect all of our economies. So we will continue to look at what more can be done to tackle global overcapacity in sectors such as steel, and to ensure that, as our companies innovate and develop new products, they are confident that their intellectual property and rights will be fully protected.”

The comments are addressing the issue of counterfeit goods being mass-produced in China and sold around the world. She further states that countries “need to protect the rules-based approach that underpins and enables robust, sustainable, free-flowing global trade”, and states that China must follow rules on “issues such as overcapacity, intellectual property and trade rules”. The way to do that, she adds, is “not through unilateral action but global dialogue and cooperation”. Part of that cooperation, presumably, is through the Chinese government’s ongoing partnership with the UK Intellectual Property (UKIPO) to improve China’s IP landscape.

Media reaction to May’s comments, especially in regards to the warning over counterfeit goods, has been mixed, with claims that they could also risk harming relations at such a crucial time. In The Express, for example, reporter Macer Hall says the remarks “risk a diplomatic sleight”, while The Sun’s political deputy editor Steve Hawkes claims addressing China’s counterfeit problem “risked a spat” with the country.

Nonetheless, for those on the brand protection frontline, comments by a head of state on the issue of rampant IP infringement in China will be warmly received. Indeed, US President Donald Trump pledged “enforcement of our trade rules”, including protecting “American intellectual property”, in his State of the Union speech yesterday – though China was not explicitly mentioned. This demonstrates, perhaps, that world leaders are now more willing to challenge China on fake goods than ever before. The next step is whether China does more to tackle the problem.