Why the UK is talking to China

British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi shake hands before a meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China
Image caption,James Cleverly met Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, one of the leading so-called “wolf warrior” diplomats

By Damian Grammaticas

Political correspondent

“The question I have been asking the foreign secretary is what is the purpose of his visit? Because it’s not clear at all.”

That was the acid observation from one Tory MP as James Cleverly wrapped up his one-day trip to China.

Speaking in Beijing, Mr Cleverly had a pretty straightforward assessment: “It’s an important country, it’s a large country, an influential country, and a complicated country.”

The UK’s relations with China, once hailed as the closest of any Western nation, have in recent years deteriorated sharply.

China’s crackdown in Hong Kong, discarding commitments made to preserve its autonomy, its repression of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang, its growing authoritarianism under Xi Jinping, and wargames around Taiwan have all contributed.

It’s the economy

So, as many MPs are asking, why has the foreign secretary visited now?

Tim Loughton, one of half a dozen Conservative MPs sanctioned by Beijing for calling out human rights abuses, says the visit suggests the UK is normalising relations – but argues “after everything China has and is still doing, they cannot be treated as an ordinary trading partner”.

Former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith is another who has been sanctioned. He believes Rishi Sunak’s decision to recalibrate the UK’s approach is driven by economic concerns.

“It’s a kind of spreadsheet calculation, and he’s a spreadsheet guy,” Sir Iain said of the prime minister, adding Mr Sunak probably “doesn’t think there is any risk” involved.

Of Mr Sunak’s five pledges, which he has said he should be judged on, the first three are economic – to halve inflation, grow the economy and reduce national debt.

But Sir Iain said that unlike the attempt to woo China a decade ago when David Cameron and George Osborne declared a ‘golden era’ in relations and sought trade and investment, this was poorly-timed.

Mr Osborne engaged when China had 10% growth, he said. But right now, “it’s the wrong policy at the wrong time.”

Critical too is Alicia Kearns, chair of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee.

The Conservative MP said she understood Mr Sunak’s priorities were economic, but explained a distinction. “National security is pre-eminent. You need national security to be sure of economic security.”

She said that becoming more entwined economically with China brought serious risks. If the UK was dependent on China for goods, such as solar panels and batteries for electric vehicles, that gave its Communist leaders leverage they might use in the future.

“Their goal is the more reliant we are on them at home, the more neutered we are on the world stage.”

She also warned of the dangers posed by having more products, from cars to domestic appliances, embedded with computer chips made in China that Chinese firms could use to harvest personal data.

In Beijing, Mr Cleverly said he had made clear to his hosts that security concerns win out over economic ones.

Several Conservatives said Mr Cleverly had not been specific about his aims, making it impossible to tell if the trip had been a success.

And Labour said Mr Cleverly needed to show “tangible diplomatic wins in Britain’s interests” in order to demonstrate his visit was worthwhile.

“The first test that will determine the success…will be whether or not he can secure an end to Chinese sanctions placed on British parliamentarians,” said shadow foreign secretary David Lammy.

So why is the UK shifting its policy back towards engagement?

Earlier this year the latest Integrated Review on Foreign and Defence Policy declared China “an epoch-defining” challenge to the UK.

The UK says its policy towards China is defined by three words: protect, align, and engage: protect the UK from any threats, align with partners (such as the AUKUS submarine pact with US and Australia to deal with China’s growing military power), and engage with Beijing “to create open, constructive and stable relations”.

During his visit Mr Cleverly said having a “pragmatic, sensible working relationship with China” was essential “because of the issues that affect us all”.

Those issues include dealing with Russia’s war in Ukraine, trying to limit Chinese support for Moscow, tackling climate change, China being the world’s biggest emitter of carbon, the Covid-19 pandemic, controlling future pandemics, and dealing with other transnational problems such as wildlife poaching where demand from China is often a factor.

Human rights concerns

But there are key issues that some Tory MPs and opposition parties fear are not being prioritised.

The Liberal Democrats’ foreign affairs spokeswoman Layla Moran said Mr Sunak and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt had recognised the economy was “the main thing that the next election is going to be fought over, and so they are desperate to do anything that will turn it around” – including letting “human rights take a back seat”.

Sir Iain Duncan Smith said the UK’s approach to China was in stark contrast with the US where 10 people have been sanctioned. “How many has Britain sanctioned? None.”

He went on, saying China probably viewed the UK as “soft” and urged British officials to learn from history.

Sunak: UK is working with Australia and Japan to ensure the Indo-Pacific region remains “free and open”

“What is the point of the 1930s if it doesn’t teach you a lesson? They have got to respect you or they keep taking what they want.”

Ms Kearns said the UK needed to engage China. “That is how you set your red lines.”

The ruling Chinese Communist http://mantrasungokong.com/ Party needs to see “the whites of our eyes to know we are absolutely serious”, she explained, that “we will not tolerate repression of democracy campaigners outside China, or any attempt to change the status of Taiwan through force”.

But Mr Loughton believes “the government does not have a coherent approach on China”.

“China only takes notice if there are consequences and those consequences are followed through.”

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