Britain’s Foreign Secretary James Cleverly has begun a long-awaited visit to China as the two countries attempt to stabilise bilateral ties that have frayed badly in recent years.
The trip is the first by a British top diplomat to China in more than five years, underscoring the downturn in relations over Beijing’s curbing of civil liberties in Hong Kong, a former British colony, abuses against Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region, China’s support for Russia and Britain’s close security ties with the United States.
Keep readinglist of 1 item
“I’ve had a number of conversations with senior representatives of the Chinese government and I have raised human rights in every single one of those meetings,” Cleverly said on Wednesday.
“This is an issue that is discussed extensively not just bilaterally, but at the United Nations,” he said.
“I think the Chinese government understand the UK is consistent in our approach … and I will keep raising these issues with [them].”
Cleverly met first with Vice President Han Zheng, who said the visit will “further promote the sound and stable development of bilateral relations”.
Later on Wednesday, Cleverly met with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, who is both the ruling Communist Party’s top official for foreign affairs and recently resumed his former post as foreign minister after the still unexplained disappearance of his predecessor, Qin Gang.
Meeting Cleverly at Beijing’s Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, Wang said China has “always attached importance to Britain’s status as a great power and your unique role”.
“Dialogue and cooperation are the key words … of China’s policy towards the UK,” Wang said.
But he added: “We have also noticed that there are noises in the Sino-British relationship from time to time, and some people even question your trip to Beijing.”
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is aiming to pursue a nuanced, non-confrontational approach to relations with Beijing.
He has described China as a growing “systemic challenge” to Britain’s values and interests, but he has also stressed the need to maintain a relationship with the Asian superpower.
A critical report by MPs said on Wednesday that the UK government needs a more coherent and unified approach to China if its so-called tilt towards the Asia-Pacific region is to succeed.
Ministers should publish an unclassified version of the China strategy as part of a “coordinated, whole-of-government approach”, the 87-page report by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee said.
It brands Beijing “a threat to the UK and its interests”, arguing that “the behaviour of the Chinese Communist Party is currently characterised by increased aggression” towards Britain.
The report also urges London to develop “deterrence diplomacy”, increasing resilience and defence-orientated policies with allies, to counter Chinese threats and protect “the self-determination of the people of Taiwan”.
The paper’s publication follows two years of evidence-gathering and research.
The cross-party Foreign Affairs Committee said that the aim of Cleverly’s visit has been hindered by the government’s own internal incoherence towards the region.
“It appears that there is confusion in Whitehall about the tilt to the Indo-Pacific, stemming from a failure to explain the policy, and its implications for resource allocation, across government,” said the report, using another name for the Asia Pacific region.
It urged “greater clarity on detail” and “concrete steps” to help deliver the shift.
The UK first detailed its strategic “tilt” towards the Asia-Pacific region in March 2021, as part of the biggest overhaul of security, defence and foreign policy in decades.
Touted as “Global Britain” repositioning itself post-Brexit, it was seen as an overdue response to China’s growing geopolitical importance.
The shift includes deepening ties with its regional rivals, such as India and Japan, as well as members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Other key areas include bolstering regional relationships in everything from military and space to cutting-edge technologies.
‘Too much unsaid’
But more than two years on, Conservative MP Alicia Kearns, chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, said “there is still too much unsaid” around the policy.
“Strengthening our diplomatic, defensive and economic ties in the Indo-Pacific is critical – if the West leaves a vacuum, China will eagerly fill it,” she added, highlighting a raft of recommendations.
They include announcing “zero tolerance of transnational repression”, including being prepared to expel foreign diplomats involved in intimidating or attacking British citizens or those given refuge in the UK.
London should engage with Taiwan to secure domestic investment in the semiconductor and wind industries, and build an alternative supply source for advanced semiconductors and wind energy components, the report urged.
The UK must expand alliances such as the AUKUS defence pact with Australia and the United States, and join the Quad strategic security dialogue between Australia, India, Japan and the United States, it added.
Britain should also further develop economic and people-to-people ties with Asia Pacific countries, according to the report.