- By Damian Grammaticas
- Political reporter
He added, “The question I ask the Foreign Minister is: What is the purpose of his visit? Because the matter is not clear at all.”
That was the scathing remark made by a Tory MP as James Cleverly concluded his one-day trip to China.
Speaking in Beijing, Cleverly had a clear and straightforward assessment: “It is an important country, it is a large country, it is an influential country, it is a complex country.”
The UK’s relations with China, once considered the closest of any Western country, have deteriorated sharply in recent years.
China’s crackdown in Hong Kong, its neglect of commitments it has made to preserve its autonomy, its repression of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang, its increasing authoritarianism under Xi Jinping, and its war games around Taiwan have contributed to this.
It’s the economy
So, many MPs ask, why did the foreign minister visit now?
Tim Loughton, one of six Conservative MPs sanctioned by Beijing over their criticism of human rights abuses, says the visit signals the UK is normalizing relations – but says “after everything China has done and continues to do, it cannot be treated as trade.” Normal”. a partner”.
Former Conservative Party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith is also sanctioned. Rishi Sunak’s decision to recalibrate the UK’s approach is believed to be driven by economic concerns.
“He’s a kind of spreadsheet calculations kind of guy, a spreadsheet guy,” Sir Ian said of the Prime Minister, adding that Sunak probably “doesn’t think there’s any risk” in the matter.
Of Sunak’s five pledges, on which he said he should be judged, the first three are economic – halving inflation, growing the economy and reducing the national debt.
But Sir Ian said that unlike the attempt to woo China a decade ago when David Cameron and George Osborne declared a “golden age” in relations and sought trade and investment, this attempt was poorly timed.
He said Osborne was involved when China achieved 10% growth. But for now, “it’s the wrong policy at the wrong time.”
Also significant is Alicia Cairns, chair of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee.
The Conservative MP said she understood Sunak’s priorities were economic, but explained the difference. “National security is the most important. You need national security to make sure of economic security.”
She said further economic intertwining with China carries serious risks. And if the UK relied on China for goods such as solar panels and batteries for electric cars, that gave its communist leaders leverage that they could use in the future.
“Their goal is that the more we depend on them at home, the more neutral we become on the world stage.”
It also warned of the risks posed by having more products, from cars to home appliances, embedded with computer chips made in China that Chinese companies can use to collect personal data.
In Beijing, Cleverly said he made it clear to his hosts that security concerns outweighed economic concerns.
Many Conservatives said Cleverly was not specific about his goals, making it impossible to know whether the flight was a success.
Labor said Cleverley needed to show “tangible diplomatic victories for Britain” in order to prove his visit was worthwhile.
Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lamy said, “The first test that will determine the extent of success … will be whether or not he can secure an end to the Chinese sanctions imposed on British parliamentarians.”
So why is the UK shifting its policy towards engagement again?
The UK says its China policy is defined by three words: protect, align, and engage: protecting the UK from any threats, getting along with partners (such as the AUKUS submarine agreement with the US and Australia to deal with China’s growing military might), and engaging with Beijing “to set up Open, constructive and stable relationships.
Cleverly said during his visit that establishing a “reasonable and pragmatic working relationship with China” is necessary “because of the issues that affect all of us.”
These issues include dealing with Russia’s war in Ukraine, trying to limit Chinese support to Moscow, addressing climate change, China being the world’s largest emitter of carbon, the COVID-19 pandemic, controlling future epidemics, and dealing with other transnational problems such as wildlife. . Poaching where demand from China is often a factor.
But there are key issues that some Conservative and opposition MPs fear will not be given priority.
Leila Moran, the Liberal Democrats’ foreign affairs spokeswoman, said Sunak and Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt recognized that the economy was “the main thing to contest the next election, and so they are desperate to do anything to change its trajectory”. – including leaving “human rights in the back seat”.
Sir Ian Duncan Smith said the UK’s approach to China contrasted starkly with the US where 10 people have been sanctioned. “How many sanctions has Britain imposed? None.”
He went on to say that China might view the UK as “soft” and urged British officials to learn from history.
“What’s the point of your thirties if they don’t teach you a lesson? They have to respect you or keep taking what they want.”
Ms Cairns said the UK needed to engage China. “This is how you put your red lines.”
She explained that the ruling Chinese Communist Party needs to “see the whites of our eyes to know that we are completely serious,” and that “we will not tolerate the suppression of democracy activists outside China, or any attempt to change the status of Taiwan by force.” .
But Lawton believes that “the government does not have a coherent approach to China”.
“China only pays attention if there are consequences and those consequences are followed up.”