Britain’s Foreign Secretary says the UK must engage with China where necessary, yet be unflinchingly realistic about its authoritarianism. Duncan Bartlett considers what this approach means for the government of Rishi Sunak
If you had asked me in January whether the British prime minister would visit China in 2023, the answer would have been a definite ‘no’.
It seemed that, due to the generally negative tone towards the Chinese Communist Party in the British media and the House of Commons, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak would conclude it would be too controversial to go there, and it would therefore be better to keep his distance.
But now, as we approach the halfway point of 2023, a number of factors suggest that a prime ministerial trip to China may be possible.
Of course, any state visit should only be undertaken if there is a degree of calm at Westminster and across the country. This is by no means guaranteed, especially following the resignation of the deputy prime minister Dominic Raab in April.
Furthermore, the UK is experiencing serious strikes in the health service and teaching sector, linked to the cost of living crisis. Expensive foreign trips by the national leader do not sit well with voters who are having to scrimp and save to pay their bills.
The opposition Labour Party is well ahead of Mr Sunak’s Conservative Party in the opinion polls. If the government were to fall, sparking a snap election, it would cause a crisis.
Nevertheless, bar further political chaos, Rishi Sunak is set to visit Asia in May, when he will attend the G7 leaders’ summit in Hiroshima, Japan. This will be his first visit to the region since becoming Prime Minister.
Since Britain joined the CPTPP trade bloc in March, it has become a committed partner to several Asian and Pacific nations. Japan supported the UK’s entry, so it would be almost impossible for Mr Sunak to snub a G7 leaders’ meeting, hosted by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.
China and Taiwan have also made applications to join the CPTPP and the UK is now among those nations which will be weighing up whether to let them in. This is a complex matter, and requires discussion with the Chinese.
On April 25, the British Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly, announced that he plans to go to China in 2023, although no date has yet been set for the trip.
The news coincided with a major speech by Mr Cleverly, delivered at Mansion House in London. He said that the UK will ‘engage directly with China, bilaterally and multilaterally, to preserve and create open, constructive and stable relations, reflecting China’s global importance’.
But he also emphasised that Britain will need to consider national security issues ‘wherever Beijing’s actions pose a threat to our people or our prosperity’.
‘Even though engagement can succeed,’ he added, ‘the truth is that a country like ours, devoted to liberty and democracy, will always be torn between our national interest in dealing with China and our abhorrence of Beijing’s abuses.”
This was backed by a promise to cooperate and strengthen alignment with ‘friends and partners in the Indo-Pacific and across the world’ – a reference to the strong ties between the UK and Asian democracies, including Japan.
The Americans must have been aware of the tone of the Foreign Secretary’s speech, which he delivered a few days after he met US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, as well as the foreign ministers of France, Germany, Italy, Canada and Japan.
The current line from Washington is that ‘China and the United States can and need to find a way to live together and share in global prosperity’.
This was the message that US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen delivered in a speech at Johns Hopkins University in April. She rejected the premise of looking at US-China relations through the lens of a zero-sum contest, where one must fall for the other to rise. ‘The world is big enough for both of us,’ Ms Yellen said, adding that US President Joe Biden shared her view.
Other European leaders have found the relationship with China – especially over the issue of Taiwan – extremely demanding.
French President Emmanuel Macron spent two days in China on a state visit in April. His trip was overshadowed by controversial comments he made about Taiwan to reporters.
In an interview conducted jointly by journalists from Politico and Les Echos, Mr Macron said it was not the continent’s business ‘getting caught up in crises that are not ours’. Europe, he added, should not be ‘followers’ of America.
A few days later, at a press conference in Amsterdam with the Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, President Macron told journalists that ‘being an ally does not mean being a vassal, or mean that we don’t have the right to think for ourselves’.
The Taiwan issue was also addressed by Foreign Secretary Cleverly in his Mansion House speech. ‘Britain’s long standing position is that we want to see a peaceful settlement of the differences across the Strait… so it’s essential that no party takes unilateral action to change the status quo,’ he said.
His remarks echo those of Germany’s Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock, who travelled to China in April.
Ms Baerbock’s visit to Beijing will likely set a precedent for Mr Cleverly. He could follow her example of paying respects to his Chinese hosts, while still highlighting the issues on which there are disagreements.
If the foreign Secretary’s trip is seen as constructive, then Prime Minister Sunak may well consider following in his wake. But striking the right tone will not be easy, and how Mr Sunak responds to China will surely define his international reputation.
Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs