Much has changed since the last time a British Foreign Secretary visited China. Back in 2018, when Jeremy Hunt met his Chinese counterpart, foreign minister Wang Yi, the world had never heard of Covid-19, Hong Kong remained mostly immune from interference from Beijing, and the truth about the mass internment camps in Xinjiang had only started emerging. Hunt and Wang agreed to keep ‘building the ‘Golden Era’ of China-UK relations’. How different the world looks, just five years later, as another British Foreign Secretary prepares to visit Beijing.
In British diplomatic circles, the term ‘golden era’ has been retired, as various human rights and geopolitical spats have led to the UK adopting a new strategy of ‘robust pragmatism’ with China (set out in this year’s Integrated Review update). When James Cleverly arrives in the Chinese capital, we will see whether this ‘robust pragmatism’ is a constructive and strategic way to deal with the world’s rising autocracy, or if it is merely ‘appeasement’, as some of parliament’s biggest China critics say.
These critics have questioned why Cleverly needs to visit China at all. Iain Duncan Smith, former Conservative leader, has accused the UK of looking like the ‘soft underbelly’ of the western alliance facing China. Yet unity with allies is one of the reasons why Cleverly had to go: this year, it’s not just France and Germany who have sent delegations to China (each led by their head of state), but the US has also made a series of tentative moves to resume dialogue after February’s balloon debacle. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit was followed by Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen and the US’s climate envoy, John Kerry, in the last few months alone. For British representatives not to visit China would mean relegating ourselves to a diplomatic reserve bench.
The British delegation will be hoping to get other ‘wins’ – such as laying the groundwork for China’s attendance in the UK’s AI summit, hosted in Bletchley Park in November so that the Sunak government can lay claim to Britain being a ‘convenor’ of the growing sector.