Dealing with China is ‘not a comfortable chit chat over tea and biscuits’
James Cleverly has said his meetings with Chinese officials are not a “comfortable chit chat over tea and biscuits”, as he defended himself against calls for the Government to take a tougher line against Xi Jinping.
The Foreign Secretary told The Telegraph that he had raised human rights issues and the sanctioning of British MPs “whenever” he had spoken to Chinese ministers and said to cut off the regime “would not be a show of strength”.
Mr Cleverly has faced criticism from Tory MPs, including his former boss Liz Truss, for refusing to reclassify China as a “threat” in response to the premier’s aggressive foreign policy and abuse of Uyghur Muslims.
In a speech this week, he said it would be “impossible, impractical and – most importantly – unwise” to sum up Britain’s relationship with the communist state in such a word and promised to “engage with China where necessary”.
That approach is unpopular with Conservative MPs in two influential groups set up to monitor UK-Sino relations – the China Research Group and the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC).
Earlier this month, Ms Truss told Western democracies they must “get real” about China and accused leaders of “appeasing” the country in the face of human rights abuses and threats to Taiwan.
The Foreign Secretary said he had been criticised by “some of [his] closest friends” in Parliament and that while he would listen to their views, “friends don’t agree on absolutely everything”.
“Confronting China over those things is being tough, and we can only do that credibly if we engage with China,” he said.
“In terms of defining diplomatic language, people need to really understand that engaging with China does not mean agreeing with China.
“Talking to China is not about comfortable chit chat over tea and biscuits – it’s about highlighting our opposition to the actions they take that we disagree with, it means doing so directly.
“Whenever I’ve had a conversation with a Chinese minister, whether face-to-face or over the phone, I have always highlighted the plight of the Uyghur Muslims, I’ve always highlighted their posture towards Hong Kong.
“I’ve always criticised their decision to sanction my parliamentary colleagues and I’ve always demanded that they lift those sanctions.”
Ms Truss had pledged to reclassify China as a “threat” in a defence review after she took office but was unable to complete it before she was forced to resign.
Mr Sunak has been criticised for softening his stance on China since the Conservative leadership race last summer, in which he described the country as “the largest threat to Britain and the world’s security and prosperity”.
Since taking office, he has refused to repeat that claim and instead referred to the end of the “golden age” in UK-Chinese relations once heralded by David Cameron and George Osborne.
Responding to the suggestion that Ms Truss’s criticism of the Government’s new approach had made his life difficult, Mr Cleverly said: “If you want an easy life, Foreign Secretary is not the job to get.
“These are some of my closest friends in Parliament. These are long, long, long, long-standing friends.
“She made me Foreign Secretary because she’d seen me working as a foreign affairs minister.
“Now that doesn’t mean that we have always agreed on every particular detail of every particular point. Friends don’t agree on absolutely everything, and of course I respect her thoughts on this.
“She knows what she’s talking about, she’s been foreign secretary and she has strong views. And of course, I listened to those views, as I listen to the views of others.”
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