James Cleverly on first Foreign Secretary visit to China in five years

James Cleverly makes first visit to China by a Foreign Secretary in five years – as he tries to quell Tory fears over ‘appeasement’ with vow to be ‘tough’ on Beijing’s human rights record and aggressive policy

James Cleverly vowed to have ‘tough’ conversations today as he made the first visit to China by a Foreign Secretary in five years.

Mr Cleverly held talks with vice president Han Zheng in Beijing this morning, insisting regular dialogue was the way to avoid misunderstandings. 

Diplomats hope the discussions could herald a thaw in the frosty relations that have developed with the Asian superpower. There is speculation that Rishi Sunak could meet Chinese premier Xi Jinping at the G20 in India next week.

But Tories have voiced alarm about government ‘appeasement’ of Beijing, pointing to human rights abuses, sabre-rattling over Taiwan and the treatment of Hong Kong. 

James Cleverly held talks with vice president Han Zheng in Beijing this morning, insisting regular dialogue was the way to avoid misunderstandings

The pair shared a warm handshake, but Mr Cleverly said he would have ‘tough’ conversations in private

As he sat down with the vice president, Mr Cleverly said: ‘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 also spoke of the need to ‘take advantage of our shared endeavours’ to address the issues facing the world.

Posting on X separately, Mr Cleverly said he would not ‘shy away’ from ‘tough conversations’ while in China – where he will also meet foreign affairs minister Wang Yi.

‘Engaging with China doesn’t mean that we shy away from the tough conversations,’ he said.

‘It’s about voicing our concerns directly – face to face. That’s why I’m here.’

The trip takes places as the Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) calls for a more structured and comprehensive approach to dealing with China’s assertiveness and its potential impact on the UK’s interests and global stability.

In a new 87-page report focused on the ‘Tilt to the Indo-Pacific’ announced in the Integrated Review, MPs highlighted the urgency of an unclassified China strategy that encompasses not only trade and security but also diplomatic engagement, human rights, and technological cooperation.

The report concludes that there appears to be ‘confusion across Whitehall about the Tilt to the Indo-Pacific, stemming from a failure to explain the policy’ and urges that all relevant ministers are briefed on the higher classification version of the China strategy.

MPs on the committee also called for the Government to recognise that the repeated attacks on Hong Kong dissidents are part of a wider Chinese Communist Party policy of repression and to proactively communicate the unacceptability of such a policy directly with representatives of the Chinese government.

The Tory chair of the committee Alicia Kearns said: ‘Today’s report is a thorough assessment of the UK’s policy on the Indo-Pacific; the result of two years of evidence gathering and research.

‘The Indo-Pacific is a vast and varied geopolitical region, home to over half of the world’s population and set to continue to grow as a major economic powerhouse. The era of the Indo-Pacific is here.

‘In any conversation about the Indo-Pacific, China looms large. China’s global ambitions and desire to rival the reach and influence of the West were made clear at the recent BRICS summit, but the writing has been on the wall for years. It’s only by shoring up our networks in the Indo-Pacific that we can temper China’s economic and political expansionism, offering a viable, democratic alternative to Indo-Pacific states.’

The meeting took place at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing this morning

There is speculation that Rishi Sunak could meet Chinese premier Xi Jinping (pictured in South Africa last week) at the G20 in India 

She argued that for many years the Foreign Affairs Committee has advocated the need to balance economic cooperation with caution in the UK’s dealings with China, adding: ‘The confidential, elusive China strategy is buried deep in Whitehall, kept hidden even from senior ministers across Government. How can those implementing policy – and making laws – do so without an understanding of the overall strategy?

‘The Intelligence and Security Committee’s report highlighted the incoherence in the Government’s approach to China. Our report goes even further and calls for Government to publish an unclassified China strategy.

‘Strengthening our diplomatic, defensive and economic ties in the Indo-Pacific is critical – if the West leaves a vacuum, China will eagerly fill it.

‘Resilience and deterrence must be at the core of our foreign policy. Concentrations of power can easily end up in the wrong hands. Diversifying our supply chains, particularly our supply of semiconductors, will protect us in the long term.’

On Taiwan, which she described as an ‘important ally and partner of the UK’, Ms Kearns said: ‘The Government should stand shoulder to shoulder with Taiwan, making clear that attempts to undermine Taiwanese self-determination are unacceptable.’

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