Foreign Secretary James Cleverly urged China to help bring Russia’s war in Ukraine to end, as he used a trip to Beijing to mend the UK’s ties with the world’s second largest economy.
(Bloomberg) — Foreign Secretary James Cleverly urged China to help bring Russia’s war in Ukraine to end, as he used a trip to Beijing to mend the UK’s ties with the world’s second largest economy.
Cleverly said in an interview on Wednesday in Beijing 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 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.
“My visit here is about the bilateral relationship between the UK and China,” Cleverly said. “I have said that Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine cannot be justified by Moscow or indeed anywhere else.”
Britain is trying to improve a relationship that has been strained by issues including China’s crackdown on democracy activists in Hong Kong and several crises between Washington and Beijing. A thaw in US-China ties is providing an opening for the UK, with US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo also visiting this week.
An improvement in the China-UK relationship would offer both of them 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’s trip could 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. 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. Asked whether he would meet with Xi, Sunak on Wednesday declined to answer.
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.”
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.
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. It cited Han as saying the two countries should respect each other’s core interests, and called on Britain to create sound conditions for business.
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.”
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.
But Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Alicia Kearns said engagement with China was 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.”
Kearns’s committee issued a report ahead of Cleverly’s visit calling for a more direct response to the military threat posed by China to Taiwan and calling the democratically governed island an “independent country.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told journalists in Beijing on Wednesday that the report is “against the facts,” and that the British Parliament should “respect China’s core interests and stop sending wrong signals to Taiwan independence separatists forces.” Cleverly, meanwhile, said the committee’s paper doesn’t reflect the UK government view.
“The UK government’s position has remained consistent that there should be no unilateral change to the status quo, that any changes should be done through discussion on both sides of the Taiwan Strait,” he said.
Cleverly laid out a nuanced approached to Beijing in an April speech in which he said that the West needed China to address major problems like climate change and rejected calls to “declare some kind of new Cold War.”
There have been no face-to-face meetings between the top British and Chinese leaders since former Prime Minister Theresa May visited Beijing in 2018. A potential meeting between Sunak and Xi at the Group of 20 meeting in November was abruptly canceled, while the last public call between the nations’ leaders was with then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson more than a year ago.
On Tuesday, Cleverly met Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who is trying to deal with his own nation’s tensions with Beijing, mostly over sea border disputes.
“It is not traditional for us to look to Europe … to seek alliances and partnerships when it comes to security and defense but that seems to be the evolution, the geopolitics these days,” Marcos said after those discussions in Manila. “It is a welcome evolution in my view.”
–With assistance from Rebecca Choong Wilkins, Allen Wan, Evelyn Yu and Li Liu.
(Updates with remarks from Sunak starting in sixth paragraph.)
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