James Cleverly's China trip seeks to repair decade of declining diplomacy

Beijing and London looking to mend battered relationship with Foreign Secretary's visit this week

James Cleverly meets Wang Yi, China’s Foreign Minister once again, at the Munich Security Conference in February. His trip to Beijing next week could help thaw relations between London and Beijing. Photo: Simon Dawson / No10 Downing Street
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Eight years ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a state visit to Britain where he met the late Queen Elizabeth II and prime minister at the time David Cameron.

“China and Britain stand on brink of golden decade of co-operation,” tweeted George Osborne, who was chancellor at the time.

But that trumpeting of a “golden age” soured over the following years to one of hostile words and frozen diplomacy.

China’s actions in Hong Kong, its treatment of Uighur Muslims and security concerns over the now-cancelled Huawei 5G contract ran into Beijing’s Covid-19 isolation, its support for Russia over Ukraine and rumblings over Taiwan.

In that context Foreign Secretary James Cleverly’s trip to China next week could set the tone for a more placatory position, with a realisation that engagement is markedly better than confrontation in a fractured world.

Interlocutor UK

When Mr Cleverly lands in Beijing this week it will be the first time a British foreign secretary has been on Chinese soil in five years.

The politician, 53, will undertake a difficult balancing act of constructive language while hearing the more hawkish views of his Conservative Party colleagues. Only recently, the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said China posed the “biggest challenge of our age to global security and prosperity”.

Foremost will be steering Beijing away from its belligerence towards Taiwan, with western powers understanding that another conflict would severely unhinge global stability.

Indeed, leading analysts told The National that Britain could position itself as the “interlocutor” to mediate the challenges.

“The best case for Britain is to be shown as an interlocutor, which of course will influence other countries that wish to be Britain’s interlocutors with China,” said Prof Jeremy Black, the respected foreign policy commentator.

Furthermore, a mature dialogue will help reduce “tension and volatility” at a time when the East could become “significantly more volatile”, with a possible return of Donald Trump and increased instability in North Korea.

While Prof Black admitted it “sounded odd” given the domestic political ructions of last year, Britain was also seen as “one of the more stable of the European powers”, with German, French and Spanish politics all plagued by strife.

Bellicose Beijing

With some US politicians making high-profile trips to Taiwan, to which Beijing which has responded with more bellicose actions from its navy and air force, a more emollient approach would help.

“Any meeting between a western diplomat of senior level and China represents an opportunity to move forward the general agenda, which is to try to deter China from taking aggressive steps and encourage it to take part in the rules-based international order,” said Prof Black, of the British Foreign Policy Group.

While being among those who oppose China’s attitude and actions, Dr Alan Mendoza, director of the Henry Jackson think-thank, said “diplomacy means you talk to everyone”, which made Mr Cleverly’s trip understandable.

But he also contended that any communist-run economy was “fundamentally at odds with the values that we place at the core of our systems” in the West.

“The Chinese Communist Party exists to further its rule to oppress its people, because it knows it can maintain power by no other way,” he added. “It also has an external agenda, which is to return China to the number-one global position that it feels is its by right.

“There can be no relationship other than confrontation, given what the Chinese Communist Party is, and what it aspires to internationally.”

Chinese conundrum

Mr Cleverly recognises a large number of his Conservative colleagues believe China poses a “systemic threat” to Britain. He told MPs this year that it was the foreign secretary’s job to “engage foreign governments, including governments that we disagree with”.

But next Tuesday’s visit, delayed after China dismissed its own foreign minister Qin Gang, ousted under mysterious circumstances, could be the first step in stabilising a relationship that has deteriorated substantially.

That conundrum, argues Dr Mendoza, is exposed by the official British assessment stating that China “is obviously a major security threat and rival” but at the same time economically “Chinese investment and partnership is being sought”.

“The British government is going to try to have its cake and eat it,” he added. “And it's likely that any trade deals Mr Cleverly might walk away with will be roundly condemned by those like myself.”

Positive moves

But it will be a positive gesture to Beijing that London desires a thaw in the relationship.

Mr Sunak has recently shown a more pragmatic approach, sending a trade minister and former Labour trade secretary Peter Mandelson, a man with many high-profile contacts, to the country this summer.

There are also more pressing global issues that cannot be ignored. The climate emergency is clearly a priority, alongside the world economy.

“It is important we manage our relationship with China across a range of issues, from climate change to economic stability, where progress hinges on our successful co-operation,” a Foreign Office official told The National.

China’s size, history and global significance meant it could not be ignored “but that comes with a responsibility on the global stage”, he added.

Mr Cleverly’s trip is hot on the heels of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken's and others in trying to defuse conflict and create greater understanding in a post-pandemic world clouded by war in Ukraine.

It also appears Beijing would welcome the chance of a renewed understanding after years of disharmony, with even the China government-supporting Global Times giving a positive assessment of the visit.

“Although the British government, including Cleverly, is unclear about the potential outcomes of engaging with China, such a visit is the foundation for the resumption of China-UK relations,” Li Guanjie of Shanghai International Studies University, told the newspaper. “Without contact, how can bilateral ties return to normal?”

The newspaper also commented that diplomacy was also “bound up” in the special relationship between Britain and the US.

Ukraine peacemaker

China’s presence at the recent Ukraine peace talks in Jeddah was of high importance in that all present understood that Russia’s key ally would play a major role in any enduring settlement.

Mr Cleverly will recognise this and will certainly bring up Ukraine in his talks in China.

“Both Britain and China share an enormous interest in keeping this conflict sub-nuclear and also, spreading to involve other countries, with Russia interfering in Romania or Moldova,” said Prof Black.

“This trip could mean Britain and China at least develop a growing dialogue for peace in Ukraine.”

Updated: August 27, 2023, 5:00 AM