Sainsbury’s has sent a team to China to explore the possibility of opening the group’s first overseas shops in almost a decade.

The six-man team was sent to China last month and is working out of the retailer’s buying office in Shanghai. According to the Sunday Telegraph, the team has been told to assess whether Sainsbury’s should open a chain of stores in the country in the “medium to long term”.

Senior Sainsbury’s executives are understood to have met officials from China’s Ministry of Commerce when they visited London last week.

The grocer said any plans are at an early stage. “We are not taking our eye off the UK in the short term. This is a long-term project,” said a senior Sainsbury’s executive.

The retailer would be going head-to-head with Tesco if it opens stores in China. Tesco plans to open 80 400,000 sq ft developments in the country.

Opening stores overseas would be a break from the norm for Sainsbury’s, which pulled out of the US in 2004, with the sale of Shaw’s, its US supermarket business.

The retailer announced in June that Darren Shapland had been asked to consider the opportunities of overseas expansion. Shapland heads up business development for Sainsbury’s.