Can Cleverly’s planned visit break the ice between China and the UK?
Published: Aug 22, 2023 09:14 PM
British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly Photo: AFP

British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly Photo: AFP

British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly is set to visit China at the end of this month, the purpose of the which is "to stabilize a turbulent relationship that has sunk to its lowest point in decades," according to Reuters. If the visit takes place, Cleverly will be the highest-ranking British official to visit China since the COVID-19 pandemic. More importantly, this planned visit holds significant importance as it could serve as a positive gesture by the British government and potentially act as an icebreaker for China-UK relations, analysts believe. 

The crux of the China-UK relationship may lie in some bias in Britain that border on the Cold War mentality or a values-oriented prejudice toward China. 

For the Sunak government, on one hand, it feels that if the political relationship with China is not handled well, the UK's economy could be affected, thus the UK must engage with China at the political level. On the other hand, given the next general election to be held no later than January 24 2025, the Sunak government needs to adjust its policy in time to show the British public the image of a relatively rational government.

Tian Dewen, a researcher with the Institute of European Studies of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that Cleverly's planned trip may be linked to Blinken's visit and other recent requests from the US to visit China. In any case, his visit will have a positive effect on promoting China-UK relations.

"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. Without contact, how can bilateral ties return to normal?" said Li Guanjie, a research fellow from the Shanghai International Studies University. He added that the visit may mark the beginning of rebuilding relations, but we have yet to witness any subsequent practical measures. For now, the political and diplomatic relationship between China and the UK is still in a frozen state.

The UK's stance on China has changed greatly and frequently in recent years. In addition to being influenced by the US, it is also related to the UK's internal turmoil, which has seen five prime ministers over the past seven years. With long-term unresolved internal problems, it has been difficult for the UK to formulate a stable diplomatic strategy toward China, and even more hard to achieve strategic autonomy under the shadow of the US. 

It is also noticeable that the UK's economy has been struggling after Brexit, a condition that has been exacerbated by the epidemic, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and global economic setbacks. Li said that Britain initially hoped for the US' help, but the US can hardly look after itself with an internal recession, and Britain is out of tune with the EU, so it has to change its mindset. Since the two major European countries, France and Germany, are also seeking changes, the UK also wants to look for opportunities in these changes, which include its stance on China.

Tian said the change in Britain's stance toward China will be a gradual process. This adjustment proposed by the British Foreign Office has a positive significance, but as to whether the whole British policy toward China will be changed, it remains to be seen.

Recently, Sunak has sent Dominic Johnson, the minister of state in the UK Department for Business and Trade, as well as former British trade secretary Peter Mandelson to China in May and June, respectively. This reflects Sunak's relatively pragmatic attitude in addressing China-UK relations.

Nevertheless, the future of the China-UK relationship is closely bound up with China-US relations due to the special relationship between the UK and the US. Judging from the public opinion and the political environment within the UK, the difficulties and challenges that the China-UK relationship may face in the near future have not diminished. However, joint cooperation between the two sides is still progressing, and whether China-UK cooperation can be further expanded on the existing basis is a great concern for the future. In terms of the political level, the trajectory of China-UK relations may still depend on the US-China relationship.