U.K. Foreign Secretary Seeks Better Relations, Raises Concerns on China Visit

U.K. Foreign Secretary Seeks Better Relations, Raises Concerns on China Visit
British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly (UK Department for International Developmen)

The Lede: British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly visited Beijing on Wednesday where he emphasized maintaining a working relationship and reopening channels of communication with China after years of increasingly sour bilateral ties between the two countries. The visit represents an effort by the U.K. to patch up relations with China amid human rights criticisms and geopolitical competition.

What We Know:

  • Cleverly met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Vice President Han Zheng during his one-day visit. The diplomats underscored the importance of dialogue between their countries while also acknowledging the deterioration of their relations in recent years.
  • In the discussions, Cleverly raised the issues of the erosion of rights and freedoms in Hong Kong, the treatment of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang, and stability in the Taiwan Strait.
  • This trip is the first by a U.K. foreign secretary to China in more than five years.

The Background: The visit came as British lawmakers in the foreign affairs committee of Parliament published a report criticising the government’s lack of coherence and lack of transparency in its China strategy. It called the activities of the Chinese Communist Party “a threat to the U.K. and its interests.” The report also refers to Taiwan as an independent country under the name Republic of China with mentions of qualifications such as statehood, defined territory, government, and capacity to enter into relations with other states.

Likely Outcomes:

  • The U.K. seems to be starting on a similar path that the U.S. has been taking in boosting visits and dialogue with China amid the increased geopolitical tensions. The attitude that Western countries should keep up dialogue with China as a bare minimum is a low enough bar to reach. It also imparts momentum to set up future high-level visits and meetings. This meeting between Cleverly and high-level Chinese officials could have paved the way for a meeting between Sunak and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Group of 20 summit in New Delhi next week, but sources have indicated that the Chinese leader will be skipping the event.
  • The visit and statements made on all sides are attempts to focus on areas of agreement and where the two countries have common interests, but Cleverly’s mention of highly sensitive topics to China will likely be seen as inflammatory to Beijing while also possibly seeming conciliatory by critics in London as the government seems to want to keep relations afloat while just paying lip service to these concerns.


“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. I am clear-eyed … that we are not going to change China overnight. But it is important that we maintain regular dialogue.” – James Cleverly, foreign secretary of the U.K.

“Dialogue and cooperation are the keywords and main tone of China’s policy towards the U.K. Of course, we have also noticed that from time to time there have been some noises in the Sino-British relationship, and some people have even questioned your visit to Beijing.” – Wang Yi, foreign minister of China

“It’s perfectly possible to engage with China at the same time as being very robust in standing up for our interests and our values.” – Rishi Sunak, prime minister of the U.K.

“The fact that they are talking is a positive. We need to engage in conversation with China, we need to have effective communication channels with China — even if we don’t agree on anything — because China does matter.” - Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute

Good Reads:

Britain's top diplomat raises human rights concerns with China, explores ways to boost communication (Washington Post)

Britain’s top diplomat raises human rights concerns with China but stresses “pragmatic” relationship (AP)

Isolating China would be a mistake, says UK foreign secretary (The Guardian)