Table of Contents
UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly engaged in delicate diplomatic balancing during a November 2022 visit to China, seeking to ease escalating tensions while facing harsh criticism from China hawks within his Conservative Party. It was the first visit by a British foreign secretary in five years, highlighting efforts to stabilize relations with global power China after increased brinkmanship.
Cleverly aimed to open communications and reduce miscalculations, stating regular high-level meetings help "enhance understanding" and "avoid misunderstandings." However, he simultaneously pledged to have "tough conversations" on sensitive issues like Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and human rights abuses, signaling that UK criticism on rights issues would persist.
The foreign secretary met Chinese Vice President Han Zheng, who oversaw Hong Kong's authoritarian crackdown, and other senior officials. Cleverly stated that while China would not change “overnight,” addressing “differences of opinion” was vital to prevent uncontrolled bilateral deterioration.
The visit fueled speculation that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak could soon meet President Xi Jinping at the G20 summit, further restoring top diplomatic channels. Sunak called the trip "entirely sensible," saying engaging China did not preclude defending British interests and values.
However, the outreach generated fierce backlash from China hawks within the Conservative Party who advocate limiting Chinese influence and taking a tougher line on security threats and rights violations. They likened government overtures to 1930s appeasement of Nazi Germany – indicating deep internal divisions.
Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith and other critics argued Britain should stand firm against Chinese intimidation on UK soil and deepening authoritarianism, rather than reconcile with an increasingly aggressive regime. Hawkish MPs sanctioned by China opposed high-level engagement as undermining UK principles.
The Foreign Affairs Committee published a report labeling China's Communist Party a threat to British interests before Cleverly’s visit. It called for expelling Chinese diplomats engaged in repression and reducing reliance on Chinese technology over data harvesting risks.
While recognizing China’s challenge to the rules-based order, Cleverly's outreach hints at careful recalibration toward guarded bilateral engagement amidst complex interdependence. The UK remains deeply wary of China’s ambitions and violations, but may seek to stabilize ties to enable progress on shared interests.
Yet vocal Conservative opposition significantly constrains the government's room to maneuver on China policy. Perceived softening risks further inflaming internal party divisions. Cleverly argued candid dialogue did not alter the UK's posture on rights. But the coming months will test Britain's ability to balance principled criticism with pragmatic engagement.
The foreign secretary now faces tough follow-through, conveying Western concerns plainly while reassuring China hawks. Beijing will also respond forcefully if the UK sustains heavy criticism on core interests like Taiwan, Hong Kong, or Xinjiang. For now, Cleverly avoided major controversy beyond expected backlash.
But intensifying domestic political pressures will complicate finding the right China policy balance going forward. The foreign secretary's visit highlighted an unresolved debate on how to approach a formidable strategic rival and vital economic partner.
Further context shows the challenges:
- Rights groups estimate over 1 million Uyghur Muslims detained in oppressive Xinjiang camps amid accusations of forced labor, sterilization, torture and genocide.
- The UK criticizes China’s dismantling of Hong Kong’s liberties and autonomy under the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration.
- China’s expanding military activities in the South China Sea and around Taiwan raise regional tensions and risks of confrontation.
- The UK banned Chinese telecoms giant Huawei from its 5G network in 2020 amid national security concerns.
- China’s growing nuclear arsenal, influence campaigns, and cyber capabilities threaten the UK as China seeks to reshape the global order.
- But China remains a top trading partner and site of major investment for UK firms, presenting economic inducements.
- The UK still courts Chinese investment and finance to boost domestic growth, complicating efforts to decouple supply chains.
Navigating these choppy waters, Cleverly's diplomatic tightrope act aimed to balance reopening engagement with acknowledging profound bilateral tensions. But an increasingly assertive China and vocal domestic opposition limit the UK's maneuvering room.
With Sino-British relations plumbing new lows recently, the foreign secretary's visit marked an effort to stabilize ties without compromising principles. Yet the mixed messaging shows the British government still struggles to plot a coherent course in a deeply vexing geopolitical relationship.
Summarised from the article by Arpan Rai for - Independent.co.uk
Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.