TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Britain’s top diplomat, James Cleverly, is set to visit China on Wednesday, as the two countries attempt to shore up frayed ties.
It will be the first trip by a U.K. foreign secretary to China in more than five years. Both countries confirmed the long-awaited trip on Tuesday.
“The two sides will have in-depth communication on Sino-British relations and international and regional issues of common concern,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said. “We hope the British side will work with us to uphold the spirit of mutual respect, deepen exchanges, enhance mutual understanding and promote the stable development of Sino-British relations.”
Cleverly’s visit is an attempt to stabilize China-Britain ties, which have sunk to their lowest level in decades. The countries disagree over issues such as Beijing’s curbing of civil freedoms in Hong Kong, a former British colony, alleged human rights abuses against the Uyghur minority in the Xinjiang region, China’s support for Russia and Britain’s close security ties with the United States.
Cleverly has said he would raise issues such as Xinjiang and Hong Kong with the Chinese government. He is expected to stress that Chinese influence comes with responsibility on the global stage — including helping end Russia's invasion of Ukraine and diffusing geopolitical tensions in the South China Sea.
“That responsibility means China fulfilling its international commitments and obligations," he said.
Britain’s governing Conservative party is split over how tough a line to take with Beijing. Critics had accused former Prime Minister Boris Johnson — a self-declared “Sinophile” — of prioritizing trade ties and not taking Chinese threats to national security seriously enough.
Current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is aiming to pursue a nuanced, non-confrontational approach. He has described China as a growing “systemic challenge” to Britain’s values and interests, but he has also stressed the need to maintain a relationship with the Asian superpower.
Conservative lawmaker and former party leader Iain Duncan Smith, an outspoken critic of the Chinese Communist Party, said Cleverly's visit was the latest demonstration of “Project Kowtow.”
“The problem with our position right now is it smells terribly of appeasement," he said. “It’s like we want more business, therefore we don’t want to upset the Chinese too much.”
Duncan Smith was one of five British members of Parliament critical of Beijing who were sanctioned by China in 2021. They are barred from entering mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau and from doing business with Chinese citizens.
Cleverly said he will request that Beijing lift the sanctions. Besides highlighting human rights and security concerns, Cleverly is also expected to explore potential areas of cooperation with China, such as climate change and trade.
His trip was aimed at strengthening channels of communication and protecting British interests, Britain's Foreign Office said. He will meet with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Vice President Han Zheng, it added.
Cleverly was initially scheduled to travel to Beijing in July, but his trip was postponed, and his then-counterpart, Qin Gang, was later replaced with veteran diplomat Wang Yi.
Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty International U.K.'s chief executive, said Cleverly “must ensure that human rights issues provide the tone and substance to everything he does while in China.”
“The foreign secretary must go well beyond promises to ‘raise’ human rights issues behind closed doors," he said.
Lawless reported from London. Associated Press writer Sylvia Hui in London contributed to this report.