British businesses traveling with Theresa May fight for less Chinese regulation and greater market share

  • British businesses are fighting to expand into other markets, including China.
  • Before heading to China, the prime minister wrote that both countries don't see eye-to-eye on a number of issues.
  • McLaren Automotive wants to double its sales in China.
Chris Ratcliffe | Bloomberg | Getty Images

As Theresa May prepared to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday, a business delegation of 50 British companies that had traveled to China with the U.K. prime minister was hard at work.

British businesses are fighting to expand into other markets, including China, as they face uncertainty on how trade will work with Europe once the U.K. leaves the European Union (EU) in 2019.

And, in China this week, those firms were working to remove regulations on imported goods and increase their presence in the world's second-largest economy.

"We've been talking to all sorts of Chinese businesses, so that's been really helpful, and lots of Chinese businesses in the food and drinks sector who might be interested in importing more Scotch whisky," Karen Betts, chief executive at Scotch Whisky Association told CNBC about her experience traveling with the U.K. delegation.

"But we have also had opportunities to have conversations with the Chinese authorities about some of the regulation barriers and that sort of thing… It's been really useful."

Among those regulation barriers are a 5 percent tariff on Scotch as well as issues with intellectual property, she said, noting that there has been cooperation from the Chinese authorities to remove counterfeit Scotch from the country.

May was expected to talk trade and security issues Thursday when meeting Xi. Before heading to China, the prime minister wrote in the Financial Times newspaper that both countries don't see eye-to-eye on a number of issues and that she would champion the concerns of U.K. industries about issues such as steel production and intellectual property.

Ross McMahon, chief executive officer of Kendal Nutricare, maker of powdered baby milk, told CNBC that China is its "number one" market due to the many babies being born there each year.

"It's fantastic to have the Chinese audience experience the visit form the prime minister and understand all the qualities about British food, particularly the dairy industry," he said. McMahon added he is not worried about the impact of Brexit and that businesses will adapt to a new landscape for trade.

Liam Fox, the U.K.'s international trade secretary, who is also part of the delegation visiting China, said that it's time to end the "obsession" with Europe. He told the BBC that the U.K. needs to focus on the growing global economy.

British businesses from different sectors seem excited about the prospects in the Chinese market.

Jens Ludmann, chief operating officer at McLaren Automotive, told CNBC, that the sports car maker wants to double sales in the Chinese market.

"Our aim is to double our sales from 2017 in 2018 and continue to grow into the market," he said Thursday. "We are using this visit here to expand our network, to look into future further opportunities, look at further markets."

May's three-day trip to China seems to be great for her reputation. The Chinese public considers both May and her husband Philip to be charming people, calling them "Auntie and Uncle May."