By Laurie Chen
BEIJING (Reuters) -China and Britain made tentative steps to repair relations on Wednesday, with Beijing promising better ties if both showed “mutual respect” and London saying it wants to keep lines of communication open, including between the countries’ leaders.
Foreign minister James Cleverly is the first senior British minister in five years to visit China, a trip he hopes will reset ties between the two countries after years of tension over security, investment and human rights.
The foreign secretary has argued it would be a mistake to isolate the world’s second-largest economy, but some Conservative lawmakers say the trip looks like an expression of British weakness.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi welcomed Cleverly and said both countries should move forward, rather than retreating, particularly in working together to boost the global economy.
“I believe that as long as both sides adhere to mutual respect, equal treatment, view each other’s development objectively, and enhance mutual understanding and trust, Sino-British relations will be able to eliminate all unnecessary interference and obstacles,” Wang said during the meeting’s opening remarks in front of reporters.
Cleverly responded by saying he appreciated having the ability to raise points of disagreement, telling Wang he appreciated him listening to them “carefully and professionally”, but he also wanted to raise opportunities.
“It is important for us to maintain these channels of communication at our level as minister-to-minister, ministers in upper government departments,” he said. “And, of course ultimately, it is important for our prime minister and your president to have the opportunity to speak directly as well.”
A possible meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak could come at the G20 summit in India next month, but the British leader told broadcasters his schedule for the meeting had yet to be finalised.
SUNAK UNDER PRESSURE
Sunak, under pressure from lawmakers – including former Prime Minister Liz Truss – who want London to toughen its policy on China and to declare the country a threat to British national security, defended his approach.
“It’s perfectly possible to engage with China at the same time as being very robust in standing up for our interests and our values,” Sunak said.
The foreign ministry said in a statement that Cleverly had raised issues such as what he described as the damage caused by the Beijing-imposed National Security Law in Hong Kong, called for the lifting of sanctions on some British lawmakers, and emphasised the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.
But one Conservative said on condition of anonymity it was unclear what the benefit of the trip was. “We should be robust towards China, but this looks the opposite,” the lawmaker said.
The head of parliament’s foreign affairs committee, Conservative Alicia Kearns, said she feared ministers had no coherent strategy on Beijing after her committee released a report critical of the government’s China policy.
She said the strategy was buried, asking: “How can those implementing policy – and making laws – do so without an understanding of the overall strategy?”
The committee also referred to Taiwan as an “independent country” in a break with the British government’s position. Beijing considers Taiwan part of China and strongly objects to perceived foreign interference with the island.
Britain’s government does not recognise Taiwan and has no formal diplomatic relations with the island, but it maintains economic and trade ties and has a de facto embassy in Taipei.
Cleverly’s visit to China comes as other countries in the West, including the United States, also try to improve their relations with the country.
(Reporting by Laurie Chen in Beijing and Sarah Young in London; writing by Elizabeth Piper and Kate Holton; Editing by Conor Humphries and Jonathan Oatis)