Business leaders in Birmingham have been challenged to take full advantage of the city's new trading links with China, which could be worth hundreds of millions of pounds over the next decade

City Council leader Mike Whitby, who has recently returned from a ten-day trip to the country, said Birmingham now had the best political relationship with the Chinese authorities of any UK city outside London.

Coun Whitby (Con Harborne) said Birmingham had been able to develop a unique relationship with the city of Nanjing and the province of Guangzhou, taking in an area with a population in excess of 20 million people.

He added: "They are promoting us because they see us as being highly mature and sophisticated. This is what positioning the city of Birmingham is all about.

"Most people in Britain do not yet understand the growing reputation Birmingham has in China, but there is no doubt in my mind that the links we have put in place will reap huge rewards in terms of future trade."

The Chinese authorities are particularly keen to tap into Birmingham's expertise in the legal and professional services field. A China forum, to be held in Birmingham at the beginning of next year, will give advice to local business representatives hoping to trade with the world's fastest growing economy.

The Nanjing Automotive Company, which is to resume making cars at Longbridge, has agreed to send managers to Birmingham colleges to learn English.

Coun Whitby said: "China is a country as big as a continent, which we can only begin to penetrate from an economic perspective through focused intelligence and relationship building on the ground."

While in China Coun Whitby became the only UK council leader to attend the 2006 World Cultural and Historical Cities Expo 2006.

He said: "It is difficult to make progress in China without significant political connections. Those connections are now in place.

"Some of the most remarkable building projects in the world are under way in China and there are huge opportunities for companies from Birmingham and the West Midlands to be involved.

"We have opened the door and created the opportunities. The challenge now is for industry and commerce to take advantage of this in partnership with the city of Birmingham."