Receive free UK foreign policy updates
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest UK foreign policy news every morning.
During his visit to Beijing this week, Britain’s foreign secretary has come under fire from his own side. James Cleverly has been accused of “appeasement” of China by Iain Duncan Smith, a former leader of his own Conservative party. But the British government should make no apology for engaging with China or for discussing trade and commerce in Beijing. If anything, the UK has been slow off the mark in comparison with its closest allies and partners, not just to visit Beijing but to frame a coherent China policy.
The foreign ministers of Australia, Germany and France have all visited Beijing since December. Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, made a long-delayed trip in June. Gina Raimondo, US commerce secretary, was there just before Cleverly, promising to improve conditions in China for US investors.
This flurry of western visitors to Beijing underlines a crucial point. Trying to promote trade with China, in ways that do not compromise national security, does not mean abandoning fundamental commitments on human rights or geopolitics. If the US, which is locked in a tense strategic rivalry with China, can also promote trade, so can the UK.
The Biden administration is at pains to insist it has no intention of curtailing all trade with China and is focusing only on sensitive technologies. The G7 has embraced the idea of “de-risking” trade with China rather than decoupling — a form of words that emerged from the EU. So Cleverly can push for expanded trade with China, where there are opportunities, without breaking with the western consensus.
Britain and China have a range of areas in which they have mutual economic interests, including tourism, education and finance. High technology is a sensitive area that must be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
Trying to promote trade with China — while pushing tough messages on security and human rights — is, of course, a balancing act. Actions speak louder than words. Here Britain has a decent record. The UK has recently signed the Aukus security pact with the US and Australia — a move that was greeted with open displeasure in Beijing, but which remains an important contribution to Indo-Pacific security.
Britain has also rightly refused to silently accept Beijing’s new national security regime in Hong Kong. The decision to allow almost 150,000 Hong Kong residents to move to the UK — with, potentially, many more to come — has greater weight than any diplomatic protests lodged in Beijing.
It is inevitable that the balance between commercial, security and human rights considerations will be affected by events and the actions of China. As a European country and a midsized power, Britain is not going to determine the future of the Indo-Pacific. That means that British policy will inevitably be reactive to some extent.
Nonetheless, it sometimes feels as if Britain has a series of disconnected policies to China running alongside each other, rather than a single coherent strategy. There is trade promotion, there is national security strategy and there is human rights — but the different elements have not yet been woven together into a single coherent whole.
The UK parliament’s foreign affairs committee complained on Wednesday that there is a strategy on China, but that it is so highly classified that even some relevant ministers are unaware of the details.
If there is indeed a master plan for China locked away in a filing cabinet, somewhere in Whitehall, it would be good to see some evidence of it making a difference in the real world. James Cleverly’s visit to Beijing would be a good place to start.