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BEIJING (Reuters) - China has always supported the European integration process and would like Europe to play an important role globally, China's Foreign Ministry said on Monday after Britain set a June date for a referendum on whether to leave the European Union.
Beijing has long been worried about the implications of free trade-supporting Britain leaving the European Union 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.
Asked about the referendum and whether China was concerned Britain could vote to leave the European Union, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said she had "noted" the agreement reached between Britain and the European Union.
"China has consistently supported the European integration process and would like to see Europe play an even greater role in the world," she told a daily news briefing, without elaborating.
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 mention of another country's planned vote by China, which does not like to interfere in internal affairs, and was quickly played down at the time by a Cameron aide, who said the European Union "wasn't a huge part of their discussion".
Cameron has called a June 23 referendum on whether Britain should remain in the 28-country bloc, which it joined in 1973, and said that he will campaign to stay a member.
On Friday, Cameron secured an agreement on reforms to the European Union that he said would give Britain special status in the bloc. But London Mayor Boris Johnson on Sunday threw his weight behind the campaign to leave the European Union, dealing a blow to Cameron by increasing the chance British voters will ditch membership.
Business leaders are expected to have an influential role for those undecided voters who are primarily concerned with how the referendum will affect their jobs.
During Xi's trip to Britain last year, some 40 billion pounds ($56.80 billion) in business deals were signed, including the financing of nuclear power stations.
Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie