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Foreign Secretary Defends China Diplomacy Despite Criticism From MPs

James Cleverly met Chinese Vice President Han Zheng in Beijing on Wednesday (Alamy)

6 min read

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly has defended his visit to China against criticism from MPs that the government's stance on China has been "incoherent", as he visits the country for the first time.

Cleverly is on the first trip to China by a UK foreign secretary for five years, and has defended his talks with Chinese officials by saying it is important to engage with the country on challenges that face the world; but that he would "bring up the areas where we disagree strongly".

Speaking from China on Wednesday morning, Cleverly admitted that diplomacy was not going to “change China overnight”, but stated the UK must maintain regular dialogue and regular lines of communication with the country. 

“Some people think I shouldn’t be here, but it is more important that we engage with China," he said.

"China presents a challenge to some of our principles, but of course I will bring up the areas where we disagree strongly on human rights and Hong Kong.”

The foreign secretary said there were “incredibly important issues” the UK and China need to work on together, such as climate change and the Ukraine war. 

“Working with our friends and allies around the world we are going to engage and influence China whilst being completely realistic about what we’re dealing with – and our national security will always come first," he continued.

However, Conservative and Labour MPs on the Foreign Affairs Committee have told PoliticsHome that the government still needs a more coherent strategy when it comes to China. 

The foreign affairs committee has published a report calling for the government to produce an unclassified strategy on China, as well as stating that the last three decades have marked a "failure of deterrence" to defend democratic values and prevent wars. 

The report found there to be “confusion across Whitehall about the Tilt to the Indo-Pacific, stemming from a failure to explain the policy”, referring to the government policy shift towards focusing more on the Indo-Pacific. 

Tory MP and committee member Henry Smith described current government policy on China as "ad hoc".

"Today the Foreign Affairs Committee have released our Indo-Pacific Tilt Report which whilst supporting this Government policy does highlight the need for the UK to have a proper China policy and not ad hoc as has been the case," he told PoliticsHome. 

Cleverly, however, said on Wednesday morning that the government was "clear-eyed" and "consistent" in raising issues around human rights with China. But he also made it clear that diplomacy with China should also involve cooperation – leading to questions over whether China will be invited to the UK's AI summit in November, the first event of its kind in the world where international leaders will discuss action to advance safety around AI technology.

A report from the science, innovation and technology committee is also due to come out tomorrow, which will argue the government has to accelerate regulation on AI. 

Conservative MP and chair of science committee Greg Clark told PoliticsHome that his committee's report will advocate for the overall summit to be open for all countries, but that there should be "sub-groups" of "like-minded countries" to discuss matters relating to national security and AI – suggesting China would not be invited to the latter. 

Alicia Kearns, Conservative MP and foreign committee chair said that engagement with China would be needed with AI.

“China is an AI competitor to the UK, where possible we should seek to engage with them to bring them on board with the need to recognise global regulations on AI and manage the worst excesses of the ways in which they may seek to use AI to undermine other states," she said.

"Realistically of course there are limits to what we might share with China, and how much we can cooperate – their future behaviour will determine the extent to which cooperation can continue.”

Some Labour MPs on the foreign affairs committee said that they did not have faith the visit will help to make the government's strategy on China more coherent, voicing concerns that the foreign secretary has not expressed strong enough opposition to China's violations of human rights regarding the oppression of Uyghurs, threatening democracy in Hong Kong, and Chinese support of Russia in the war with Ukraine. 

Labour MP and member of the foreign affairs committee Graham Stringer told PoliticsHome that he believed the foreign secretary would fail to bring up human rights enough and cared more about "integration" with China. 

"Quite frankly the foreign secretary is the worst foreign secretary for appeasement since Lord Halifax in the Second World War," he said. 

"When it comes to crimes committed on the streets of this country, he didn’t even call in the Chinese ambassador after a Hong Kong demonstrator was beaten up in the streets of Manchester.

"He believes they should save face, he did nothing about it at all. I don't trust he will bring up human rights. All the evidence is that he wants a sleazy trade deal and he wants more integration with the Chinese economy than is sensible or good for our security.

"I think this foreign secretary is not fit to represent the country going to China, so in that sense, it shouldn't have happened. I don't think this government, particularly as personified by Cleverly, is going to do anything to pursue the interests of the Uighurs or improve human rights.”

Stringer said there were “strong feelings” across the foreign affairs committee from all parties that the Foreign Office need to toughen their stance on this. He also said he believed China should not be invited to the AI summit in any capacity. 

“I think that over the last 30 years China have been stealing our intellectual property," Stringer said. 

"AI is a very dangerous new technology and we do not want to be cooperating with China. Officials seem oblivious to the threat posed by China to the security of this country and the economy as a whole."

Another member of the foreign affairs committee and Labour MP Neil Coyle said it was "extraordinary" that the government might welcome China to the summit. 

"It is extraordinary that Ministers pretend China is welcome at an AI conference given global concerns about the Communist regime’s brutal internal record and aggressive posturing and cyber attacks on Taiwan," he told PoliticsHome.

"Ministers need to uncoil their contortions and be clear what their position is as our report makes clear today. The distortions damage the UK."

Coyle argued that the government's position is inconsistent when they have belatedly blocked Chinese company Huawei from any contracts and earlier this year announced TikTok – the parent company of which is Chinese-owned – will not be used by any department due to data and security sensitivities.

Responding to Cleverly's visit to China, Coyle said: "Cleverly should be clear what human rights abuses he’s raised. That’s the test I think, if he can’t say what he’s raised then what’s the point?”

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