UK FM's possible Beijing trip a 'tentative contact' to reboot ties; necessary atmosphere need to be created
China ready to develop positive ties, but necessary atmosphere needs to be created
Published: Aug 22, 2023 09:36 PM
China UK Photo:VCG

China UK Photo:VCG

China is ready to develop positive relations with the UK, but the necessary atmosphere and condition for normal exchanges between the two sides need to be created, Chinese experts said on Tuesday, after media reported that UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly is set to visit China in the last week of August, at a time when the bilateral relationship is at the lowest point in decades. 

Given the British government's lack of autonomy and toughness in the face of pressure from the US and UK's domestic China hawks, Cleverly's possible visit may be more of a tentative contact between the two sides after the pandemic as an overture to restart relations, experts noted.  

Citing sources, Reuters reported on Monday that Cleverly is due to land in Beijing on August 29 and his trip is "only expected to last a couple of days," and has been "scaled back from the original plan." 

Neither Beijing nor London has officially announced the visit. Britain's foreign ministry said it would announce any travel plans for Cleverly once they are finalized, according to media reports. 

The news about Cleverly's possible China visit comes after a slew of high-ranking US and EU officials and diplomats have visited Beijing in the past few months. Cleverly is likely to become the highest-ranking UK official to visit China since before three-year COVID-19 pandemic halted bilateral diplomatic exchanges. 

Compared to the relationship between China and other major Western powers, China-UK ties have yet to restart in the post-pandemic era, especially considering the hostility toward China in the UK and the inappropriate statements made by London over some sensitive issues, Cui Hongjian, director of the Department of European Studies at the China Institute of International Studies, told the Global Times on Tuesday.

China is willing to develop positive relations with the UK, but the necessary atmosphere and conditions for normal exchanges need to be created, especially on the UK side, Cui said. 

At the G7 summit in May, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said that China poses "biggest challenge in the world to global security and prosperity," after having already described Beijing as an "epoch-defining challenge" in March. 

Gao Jian, director of the Center for British Studies at Shanghai International Studies University, told the Global Times on Tuesday that although the Rishi Sunak cabinet has made some remarks that are not conducive to China-UK relations, Britain has a very realistic and pragmatic foreign policy with China, in trade and cultural and people-to-people exchanges.

In the first half of 2023, the UK's investment in China increased by 135.3 percent year-on-year, according to Xinhua. Total trade in goods and services (exports plus imports) between the UK and China was 107.5 billion pounds ($137.2 billion) in the four quarters to the end of Q1 2023, an increase of 11.3 percent from the four quarters to the end of Q1 2022, according to UK government data. 

China is an indispensable part of Britain's global interests, and economic and trade cooperation is the cornerstone of bilateral ties, Gao said. He noted that Cleverly's  trip could be a chance to restart discussions on shelved investment projects and cooperation in the fields of culture and education.

It's difficult for the UK to seal a free trade agreement negotiation with the US, while China is actually an ideal partner to strengthen economic and trade cooperation for London, Cui said. 

And if the UK wants to play its so-called role as a great power, it cannot achieve its goals without dialogue and cooperation with China, Cui noted. 

"If Cleverly's visit happens, it would become an opportunity for China-UK relations to reset and gradually return to normalcy, at least at the working level," Cui said, "However, it depends on the efforts of both sides, especially by the UK, as to whether a positive trend and momentum can be formed and restored."

Before Cleverly's possible China trip, the British Foreign Office banned employees from using the phrase "hostile state" in relation to China, Russia and North Korea and Iran in government documents and internal messaging, the Times reported on Monday. However, it faces strong opposition from the UK's China hawks.

The Sunak cabinet is not a strong one, whether in the face of pressure and manipulation from US, or from the domestic China hawks, which makes Cleverly's possible visit more likely to be a tentative contact and exchange after the pandemic to express a gesture of renewal and maintaining a certain level of dialogue, Gao said.  

It could be more symbolic than practical, the expert said.