China and the UK looked to forge a better working relationship on Wednesday as James Cleverly was received by Vice President Han Zheng on the first visit by a British cabinet minister to Beijing since the Covid-19 pandemic.
The British Foreign Secretary said it was vital to “avoid misunderstandings” in relations between the two countries as he met Mr Han in the Chinese capital.
“It is important that countries like ours meet and speak face to face on regular occasions to enhance understanding, to avoid misunderstanding and to address the challenges and differences of opinion that all countries have in bilateral relations,” he said.
His trip also included discussions with Wang Yi, the Chinese Foreign Minister.
Mr Wang, who took over as Chinese foreign minister again in the summer, set out some ground rules for the relationship as he hosted Mr Cleverly.
"I believe that as long as both sides adhere to mutual respect, equal treatment, view each other's development objectively, and enhance mutual understanding and trust, Sino-British relations will be able to eliminate all unnecessary interference and obstacles," Mr Wang said during the meeting's opening remarks in front of reporters.
Mr Cleverly, Mr Wang and Mr Han “agreed on the importance of direct cooperation between the UK and China on the biggest global challenges, such as climate change,” the UK’s Foreign Office said following the meetings.
Mr Cleverly “made clear the UK position on key geopolitical issues including the conflict in Ukraine, the situation in North Korea and nuclear non-proliferation”.
They also agreed on “the potential of AI to unlock huge opportunities but stressed the need for global coordination to mitigate risks and put protections in place”.
Mr Cleverly, the most senior British minister to visit China in five years, also spoke of the need to “take advantage of our shared endeavours” to address the world's issues.
“We are clear-eyed about the areas where we have fundamental disagreements with China and we raise those issues when we meet,” he said.
The Foreign Secretary defended his decision to travel to Beijing in the face of criticism, saying it was “more important than ever that we engage with China”.
In a video posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, Mr Cleverly acknowledged that China presented “a challenge to our values and some of our principles”.
Speaking from Beijing, he stressed the importance of holding meetings with members of the Chinese communist government, saying they present an opportunity for dialogue in crucial areas.
“I, of course, will bring up the areas where we disagree and disagree strongly, on human rights, on Hong Kong,” he said.
He repeated his stance that “the only way to influence China is to engage with China”.
Mr Cleverly listed climate change, disease prevention and response, and the Ukraine war as some areas in which discussions with Beijing are crucial.
Senior Tory MP and Foreign Affairs Select Committee chairwoman Alicia Kearns told Sky News she had spoken with Mr Cleverly on the plane as he made his way to China.
She said Prime Minister Rishi Sunak should “absolutely” meet President Xi Jinping if the opportunity arises because that is “how you prevent and deconflict potential issues”.
Mr Cleverly said he had raised human rights concerns at “every single one” of his meetings with top Chinese officials.
The Foreign Office in London previously said his talking points would include China's clampdown on freedoms in the former British colony of Hong Kong, as well as its alleged rights abuses in the Xinjiang and Tibet regions.
“I've had a number of conversations with senior representatives of the Chinese government and I have raised human rights in every single one of those meetings,” Mr Cleverly said.
“This is an issue that is discussed extensively not just bilaterally, but at the United Nations.
“I think the Chinese government understand the UK is consistent in our approach … and I will keep raising these issues with [them].”
Mr Cleverly said he had used his meetings with Chinese officials to urge them to help bring an end to Russia’s war in Ukraine, highlighting their past commitments to uphold Ukrainian territorial integrity.
Mr Sunak's official spokesman told reporters that artificial intelligence was not expected to be among the topics discussed by Mr Cleverly and Chinese officials.
He declined to say whether the government intends to invite China to the first global AI summit in the UK in November, saying the guest list has yet to be finalised.