UK Uses Cleverly Visit to Steady China Ties After Rocky Period

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly sought to put the UK’s ties with China on a more even keel after a rocky few years in which the relationship was damaged by the coronavirus pandemic, clashes over Hong Kong, and suspicions about Chinese involvement in critical British industries.

(Bloomberg) — Foreign Secretary James Cleverly sought to put the UK’s ties with China on a more even keel after a rocky few years in which the relationship was damaged by the coronavirus pandemic, clashes over Hong Kong, and suspicions about Chinese involvement in critical British industries.

Cleverly’s visit didn’t hark back to the so-called golden era of China relations that former Prime Minister David Cameron tried to usher in eight years ago: the foreign secretary was at pains to point out to broadcasters that he’d raised the issue of human rights in all his meetings. But he did seek to find common ground on global issues, highlighting the “pragmatic” approach to the world’s second biggest economy that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government is trying to chart. 

“This is about engaging directly with the Chinese government, building lines of communication, addressing the areas where we have disagreements, but also looking at opportunities to work together on some of the major issues affecting both our countries and the world, whether that be climate change, the resolution of the war in Ukraine or indeed the opportunity to build our economies,” Cleverly told Bloomberg in an interview on Wednesday.

Sunak and Cleverly are trying to reset relations strained by issues including China’s crackdown on democracy activists in Hong Kong and Britain’s resulting offer of visas for Hong Kongers, as well as the UK retreat from Chinese involvement in critical national infrastructure. The foreign secretary’s trip coincides with a thaw in US-China relations, with Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo also visiting this week. 

The visit “is a good step in the right direction” for relations, Chris Torrens, vice chairman of the British Chamber of Commerce in China, told Bloomberg TV earlier Wednesday. “Hopefully we can move that dial from the wait-and-see approach that foreign investors have had so far this year.” 

The trip by Cleverly — the most senior British minister to visit China in five years — could also set the stage for the first one-on-one meeting between Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Group of 20 summit in India next month. Sunak on Wednesday kept his cards close to his chest, declining to answer a question on whether he would meet with Xi.

China is “a country with fundamentally different values to ours and we should be robust in standing up for the things that matter to us, not just for our values but for our interests,” Sunak told reporters in London. “But alongside that, like all our allies, whether that’s America or Canada or Australia and others, it’s sensible to engage with people so that we can find a common ground on the issues where we can make progress together.”

A planned meeting in Bali last year was derailed by a news of a missile strike near Poland’s border with Ukraine and and the British premier remains the only Group of Seven leader who hasn’t had a face-to-face with Xi since China lifted its Covid curbs. 

An improvement in the China-UK relationship would offer both nations some relief as they look to boost their sluggish economies. China was the UK’s second-largest individual trading partner last year after the US, with $132.3 billion of two-way commerce. Beijing wants to shore up confidence among foreign investors wary of regulatory shakeups, tensions with the West and the Communist Party’s opaque politics.

Cleverly met with his counterpart Wang Yi and Vice President Han Zheng on Wednesday, according to Chinese state media. The mysterious removal of Beijing’s previous foreign minister, Qin Gang, had held up plans for the visit to Beijing. 

The basis for the “healthy and stable” development of the bilateral relationship is through economic and trade cooperation, the state-run Xinhua News Agency said in its readout of Cleverly’s meeting with Han. Han said the two countries should respect each other’s core interests, and called on Britain to create sound conditions for business. A brief report by China Global Television Network on Cleverly’s meeting with Wang didn’t give more details.

As well as raising human rights, Cleverly told Bloomberg that he called on Chinese officials to stand by their past commitments to uphold Ukraine’s territorial integrity. He was responding to a question about a Bloomberg News report Tuesday that Russian President Vladimir Putin had accepted China’s invitation to visit, in what would be the Russian leader’s first overseas trip since being indicted on allegations of war crimes. 

“I have said that Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine cannot be justified by Moscow or indeed anywhere else,” Cleverly said.

Sunak is trying to repair ties with Beijing without upsetting China hawks in his ruling Conservative Party, who have advocated a harder line against the country. One of them, former party leader Iain Duncan Smith, has repeatedly likened the government approach to the appeasement of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Another Tory MP, Tim Loughton, told Bloomberg’s UK Politics podcast on Wednesday that “the fact that China is the second largest economy doesn’t mean that we have to trade with it.”

But Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Alicia Kearns, who is known for her hawkish views on China, said engagement with the Asian nation is necessary.

“The choice is not between absolutely no contact and naively trusting, there is a middle ground,” she told Sky News on Wednesday. “It’s more important that James Cleverly is in the room vociferously disagreeing with them so they know our position.”

–With assistance from Rebecca Choong Wilkins, Allen Wan, Evelyn Yu, Li Liu, Stephen Carroll, Caroline Hepker and James Woolcock.

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