UK top diplomat’s long-awaited China visit ‘necessary to recover ties’
Published: Aug 30, 2023 11:45 PM
Photo: AFP

Photo: AFP

China and the UK have reengaged with each other by face-to-face talks between senior officials for the first time in five years as the British top diplomat James Cleverly visited China on Wednesday. But to what extent this can recover the overall China-UK relations depends on what the UK would do to remove obstacles for the recovery of bilateral ties, and restore communication and exchanges of all sectors. 

Chinese Vice President Han Zheng met with Cleverly, the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs of the United Kingdom, in Beijing on Wednesday, the Xinhua News Agency reported.

Han said China and the UK have established diplomatic relations at the ambassadorial level for more than half a century and achieved positive results in practical cooperation in various fields. Faced with the risks and challenges of the current international situation, the two sides, as permanent members of the UN Security Council and major economies, should uphold the spirit of mutual respect and win-win cooperation, accommodate each other's core interests and major concerns, maintain communication in international and regional affairs, and jointly promote world peace and development, he said.

"Economic and trade cooperation is the foundation for the sound and steady development of China-UK relations," Han said, adding that the two governments should create a sound business environment and actively explore new growth points for practical cooperation.

Noting that China is an important country with global influence and is playing an increasingly important role in international governance, Cleverly said the UK appreciates China's important contribution to the world economy and poverty reduction. The UK is willing to strengthen high-level exchanges and strategic communication with China to build consensus and deepen cooperation, said Cleverly.

Wang Yi, a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and Minister of Foreign Affairs, also met Cleverly on Wednesday.

Wang reaffirmed China's commitment to a stable and mutually beneficial relationship with the UK and urged dialogue and cooperation in multiple aspects for stronger trust and more understanding between the two countries.

Wang also stated China's stance on the Taiwan question, and urged the UK to respect China's core interests and abide by one China policy, while Cleverly reiterated UK's adherence to one-China policy and unchanged stance on the Taiwan question.

Analysts said due to the pressure from far-right conservative forces in London, the recovery of bilateral ties will face many challenges, and due to the difficult situation that the West and Ukraine are facing in the conflict with Russia, London also cares very much about the Ukraine crisis. Chinese experts urged the UK and other Western countries to be more pragmatic and realistic on this issue, so that China and other neutral parties will be able to help relevant conflicting parities seek possibility for a ceasefire, otherwise the situation will become less and less favorable to the West.

Be more pragmatic

"Just as what UK media said, this is a 'long-awaited visit.' Among major Western powers, including the US, France and Germany, the UK is the slowest one to rebuild its face-to-face communication with China after the COVID-19 pandemic," Cui Hongjian, director of the Department of European Studies at the China Institute of International Studies, told the Global Times on Wednesday.

A key problem is that the China policy is a controversial topic in the UK due to the pressure from the domestic conservative anti-China forces and the impact from the US; UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak faces a lot of difficulties to fix the problematic relations with China, Cui noted.   

Cleverly's trip is important especially that it's a face-to-face meeting between senior officials of the two countries, and this is a step in the right direction for the two sides to further ease tension and reduce hostility, Cui said, noting this is the basis for restoring communication and exchanges in other sectors. 

The China-UK relations are highly complementary in terms of trade, education and tourism, as well as science and technology, and if the UK can get rid of the impact from the US and have strategic autonomy like those EU major powers such as France and Germany who act more pragmatically and flexibly, Britain will benefit greatly, experts noted. 

UK business circle also expressed confidence in China's economy as the Western media are bad-mouthing China's economic situation. 

Chris Torrens, vice chairman of the British Chamber of Commerce in China, told Bloomberg in an interview that China's economy isn't as bad as the "prevailing mood" suggests and "growth is moving in the right direction" as consumer spending picks up. "I don't actually buy the notion that the Chinese economy is in serious systemic trouble," he said, Bloomberg reported on Wednesday.

Difficulties for recovery 

Cleverly has said he would raise sensitive topics about China's internal affairs such as Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said at a routine press conference on Wednesday that other countries have no right to interfere in China's internal affairs. 

Yin Zhiguang, a professor at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs under Fudan University, told the Global Times on Wednesday that "the trade volume between China and the UK has increased steadily in recent years despite the impact of US-launched trade war against China. This is very interesting."

Chinese companies' business in the UK has got damaged, especially the ones like Huawei, but the trade keeps growing, so the key differences between China and the UK are about the sensitive topics like Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang, and the UK's attitudes on these topics are heavily influenced by the US' attitude, Yin said.

"It's unlikely the UK will have strategic autonomy in diplomacy, as the UK-US special relationship will still be the mainstream of UK diplomacy, so we should not set over optimistic expectation on the recovery of China-UK ties," Yin noted.  

Cleverly's visit has "coincided" with a report from the British foreign affairs select committee of the Parliament, calling for the Sunak's government to take a zero-tolerance stance against China's "transnational repression," The Guardian reported on Wednesday. In what has been reported as a first for the British parliament, the report also referred to Taiwan as "an independent country." 

Wang Wenbing said at the press conference that Taiwan is an integral part of China's territory and the one-China principle is a universally recognized norm in international relations and the political foundation of China-UK relations. "The report from the British Parliament openly referred to Taiwan as an 'independent country,' which distorts the truth and confuses right from wrong."

China urges the relevant parties in the British Parliament to abide by the one-China principle, adhere to international law and norms governing international relations, genuinely respect China's core interests, stop sending wrong signals to the "Taiwan independence" separatist forces, fulfill their political commitments on the Taiwan question with concrete actions, and maintain the healthy and stable development of China-UK relations, Wang Wenbin noted. 

Yin said the noises made by UK conservative hawkish forces within the UK Conservative Party are actually deeply affected by the US, and they will keep on interrupting the China-UK relations, especially when they want to unify the party with hawkish stance before the general election. 

During his trip, Cleverly urged China to help bring the Russia-Ukraine conflict to an end, Bloomberg reported Wednesday.

The UK is deeply entrenched in the Ukraine crisis and due to the difficult situation the West and Ukraine are facing at the moment - tired Western industrial system and unsuccessful counter-offensive by Kiev in the battlefields, Western major powers like London are looking for a way out of the costly crisis, experts said.

"If the UK expects China to play more constructive role to promote peace talks for relevant parties, it should at least stand a little bit closer to China's fair and neutral stance on this issue rather than stay unrealistic, and keep adding fuel to the fire," Yin noted.