UK foreign secretary to visit China, first in five years
Trip an opportunity to set tone for future engagement: experts
Published: Aug 29, 2023 10:12 PM Updated: Aug 29, 2023 10:46 PM
British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly Photo: AFP

British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly Photo: AFP

UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly is set to make a long-anticipated trip to China on Wednesday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced Tuesday. The visit will make Cleverly the highest-ranking UK official to visit China since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The visit will end a long gap in high-level visits between China and the UK and set the tone for future exchanges and engagement, experts said. However, people should not be too positive over important consensus given the current divergences. 

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin announced Cleverly's China trip on Tuesday afternoon. Cleverly is set to kick off his visit on Wednesday at the invitation of Member of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee and Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi. 

During Cleverly's visit, the two sides will have in-depth communication on China-UK relations as well as international and regional issues of common concern, Wang Wenbin said.

We hope that the UK will work together with China to uphold the spirit of mutual respect, have in-depth exchanges, enhance understanding, and promote the stable development of bilateral relations, he said.

The Global Times has learned from sources familiar with the matter that Cleverly will meet with Wang Yi during his visit. The UK official is also set to meet with business leaders. 

The UK side expects to have a substantive discussion at the senior level about issues of close interest to both sides, and sees the visit as an important opportunity to demonstrate that engagement between China and UK works and that it is valuable to both sides, the Global Times has learned. The topics will include the Ukraine crisis and fighting climate change.

Although the visit is more of symbolic than practical significance, it will provide an opportunity to improve China-UK relations, Gao Jian, director of the Center for British Studies at Shanghai International Studies University, told the Global Times on Tuesday. 

Cleverly will be the highest-ranking UK official to visit China since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the first visiting UK foreign minister in five years, media reported. 

Cleverly's visit can become an opportunity for China-UK relations to reset and gradually return to normalcy, at least at the working level, Cui Hongjian, director of the Department of European Studies at the China Institute of International Studies, told the Global Times on Tuesday.

Observers noted that 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 inappropriate statements made by London over some sensitive issues.

Due to the lack of diplomatic interaction, China-UK relations have long been mired in uncertainty, Cui said. "This high-level visit will help remove that uncertainty. The two sides may use the visit as a starting point for further dialogue."

The expert said the trip will set the tone for the next China-UK engagement. The two sides are likely to make concrete plans for resuming exchanges, such as the ensuing exchange of visits. The two sides will also seek consensus on some hotspot issues and areas, even if some problems cannot be overcome in the short term, he said.

However, analysts pointed out that the visit is more of a tentative one, given the timing and context of the visit. The chances of reaching a significant consensus between the two sides are not very high, Cui said.

Observers noted that the Sunak administration's policy toward China has softened compared with previous administrations. Although it sometimes adopts a harsh tone under US pressure, it also shows practical sides.

At the G7 summit in May, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said that China poses the "biggest challenge in the world to global security and prosperity," after having already described Beijing as an "epoch-defining challenge" in March. In April, Cleverly stated that the UK must engage with China rather than isolate it in a "new cold war" in his policy speech. 

Gao pointed out that China is now the party that holds the initiative and strategic stability in China-UK relations. 

"As the UK's international influence is lower than China's, there is no way to bypass the Chinese market when Sunak tries to boost the economy," Gao said. "The Sunak government needs to cooperate with China."

As permanent members of the UN Security Council and major global economies, China and the UK bear the common responsibility of promoting world peace, stability and development, said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin on Tuesday. Maintaining and developing bilateral relations is in line with the common interests of the two peoples.