BEIJING (Reuters) - Britain must decide for itself whether it stays in the European Union, but China hopes to see a strong Europe that contributes to the global economy, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on Thursday ahead of Britain's June 23 EU membership referendum.
Beijing has long been worried about the implications of free trade-supporting Britain leaving the bloc and of any weakening of a grouping which it views as a vital counterbalance to the United States, diplomats say.
China has also made little secret of its happiness with Britain's support to push an eventual China-EU free trade deal.
Wang told a news conference about China's hosting of the Group of 20 nations this year that China did not interfere in other countries' internal affairs.
"Britain's direction is to be decided by the people of Britain. We, of course, will respect the decision made by the British people," he said.
But China would like to see Europe's integration process further develop, Wang added.
"We hope the EU can further strengthen coordination and create an EU that is stronger, stable and makes contributions to world peace and development," he said.
During a visit to Britain in October, Chinese President Xi Jinping told Prime Minister David Cameron he wanted to see a united European Union.
It was a rare albeit indirect mention of another country's planned vote by China, which regularly says its does not interfere in the internal affairs of other nations.
However it was quickly played down at the time by a Cameron aide, who said the European Union "wasn't a huge part of their discussion".
During Xi's trip, some 40 billion pounds ($58.85 billion) in business deals were signed, including the financing of nuclear power stations.
Cameron is campaigning for Britain to stay a member of the 28-country bloc, which it joined in 1973.
($1 = 0.6797 pounds)
Reporting by Michael Martina; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie