UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly recently wrapped up his one-day visit to China, leaving many MPs and observers pondering the purpose of his trip. As the UK’s relations with China have deteriorated over recent years due to concerns over Hong Kong, Uyghur rights, authoritarianism, and military maneuvers around Taiwan, the question arises: why the visit now?
Some MPs, including Tim Loughton and former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith, believe that economic considerations are at the forefront of this policy shift. They argue that Rishi Sunak, the UK’s Chancellor, may view normalizing relations with China as an economic necessity.
However, critics, such as Alicia Kearns, Chair of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, stress the importance of national security over economic gains. Kearns suggests that deepening economic ties with China could compromise the UK’s national security, especially if it becomes dependent on Chinese goods like solar panels and batteries for electric vehicles, giving Beijing leverage.
Another concern is the embedded computer chips in products like cars and domestic appliances, which are often made in China and could be exploited to harvest personal data. Kearns warns that China’s goal is to make countries reliant on its products to gain influence globally.
During his visit, James Cleverly emphasized security concerns over economic interests, but some Conservative MPs argue that he was not specific about his aims, making it difficult to gauge the trip’s success. Labour also called for “tangible diplomatic wins” during the visit.
The UK’s new policy shift towards engagement with China aligns with its broader strategy to “protect, align, and engage.” This approach seeks to protect the UK from threats, align with partners like the AUKUS pact, and engage with China to foster open and constructive relations. Cleverly highlighted the importance of a “pragmatic, sensible working relationship with China” to address global challenges such as the Russia-Ukraine conflict, climate change, pandemics, and wildlife poaching.
However, critics argue that human rights concerns are taking a back seat in this policy shift. They point out that the UK has not imposed sanctions on Chinese officials, unlike the US, which has sanctioned ten individuals. Some believe that the UK’s approach may be perceived as “soft” by China, urging British officials to learn from history and assert their principles more assertively.
In summary, the UK’s pivot towards engagement with China is seen by some as a response to economic considerations, while others emphasize the need for a balanced approach that prioritizes national security and human rights alongside economic interests. The success of this policy shift will be measured by tangible diplomatic outcomes and the UK’s ability to assert its principles effectively.