The British Union flag and the European Union flag are seen flying behind a clock in the City of London, Britain, January 16 , 2017. REUTERS/Toby Melville(reuters_tickers)
BEIJING (Reuters) - China's Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday it hoped Britain and the European Union could reach a "win-win" agreement on Britain's departure from the bloc, after Prime Minister Theresa May said it would quit the EU single market when it left.
May promised to seek the greatest possible access to European markets but said Britain would aim to establish its own free trade deals with countries far beyond Europe, and rein in immigration from the continent.
Prior to last year's Brexit vote, China had not directly stated an opinion, viewing it as an internal matter and saying only that it wanted to see a strong and stable Europe.
Diplomatic sources, however, said that was coded support for the defeated "remain" camp, as the bloc, now China's largest trading partner, will lose around a sixth of its economic output and an important supporter of free trade in the EU.
China, like everyone else, is paying close attention to future negotiations on Britain leaving the EU, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.
"We hope that Britain and the EU can reach a win-win agreement via negotiations," she told a daily news briefing.
Hua reiterated that China has consistently supported the European integration process, and believes a prosperous, stable and open EU is in everyone's interests.
"At the same time, we also attach great importance to relations with Britain, we set store on Britain's position and role, and are willing to continue strengthening mutually beneficial, win-win cooperation in all areas with Britain."
In August, the Commerce Ministry said China had an open attitude towards a free trade deal with Britain once it left the EU and was willing to study it, though Hua made no mention of this.
China and Britain have a history of disputes over human rights and the future of Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997, export-reliant China values Britain as a strong advocate for free trade within the EU.
Ties have warmed in the past few years and economic links have multiplied, in what both countries refer to as a "golden age", though Britain upset China last year by putting on hold a nuclear project that it later approved.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)