By Sarah Young and Ben Blanchard
LONDON/BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese President Xi Jinping has told Britain he wants to see a united European Union, making his most direct comments to date on Britain's relationship with Europe ahead of the country's in-out EU membership referendum.
On the last day of a four-day visit to Britain, Xi told Prime Minister David Cameron of the EU's importance for China as a strategic partner and its largest trading partner, China's foreign ministry said in a statement.
"China hopes to see a prosperous Europe and a united EU, and hopes Britain, as an important member of the EU, can play an even more positive and constructive role in promoting the deepening development of China-EU ties," it paraphrased Xi as saying.
Xi was due to end his visit to Britain on Friday in Manchester with the announcement of new air links between China and the northern British city.
Cameron is seeking to renegotiate Britain's relationship with the EU, which it joined in 1973, before holding a referendum on membership which he says will take place before the end of 2017.
China typically does not comment on votes in other countries, viewing it as an interference in an internal affair.
But Beijing has been worried about the implications of free trade-supporting Britain leaving the EU, and of any weakening of a grouping which it views as a vital counterbalance to the United States, diplomats say.
Opinion polls have showed a narrowing of support among British voters for staying in the EU and one on Thursday showed a sharp slump in backing for its membership amid concerns over an influx of migrants into Europe.
Xi's comments to Cameron, made late on Thursday during a meeting at the British prime minister's country residence, echoed those from China's Foreign Ministry earlier this month.
UK SEEKS CHINA INVESTMENT FOR NORTH
On the last day of his visit to Britain, Cameron will lead Xi on a tour of Manchester which has been designed to attract Chinese infrastructure investment. The visit has already sealed an estimated 40 billion pounds ($62 billion) of business deals.
Britain has laid on its highest level of diplomatic charm for the Chinese delegation, including an audience with Queen Elizabeth. But critics say Cameron is overlooking human rights concerns in his push to make Britain the pre-eminent Western gateway for investment from China.
Britain is courting Chinese involvement in 24 billion pounds of investment projects in the north of the country as part of its plan to regenerate the region, whose development has lagged the more prosperous southeast.
Hainan Airlines Co Ltd will announce the first direct flights between Manchester and China, a deal which Britain said could boost the city's economy by 50 million pounds.
Xi, a soccer fan, will visit an academy run by soccer club Manchester City and a tour of the National Football Museum.
He will travel to the city's airport after a meeting with local government representatives and businesses.
Partnerships to build and finance the regeneration of parts of the city will also be agreed, plus the finalization of Hong Kong firm Netdragon Websoft's 85 million-pound acquisition of educational supplies firm Promethean World Plc.
($1 = 0.6489 pounds)
(Additional reporting by William James; editing by William Schomberg and Dominic Evans)