Cleverly takes diplomatic approach in China as parliamentary report calls for tougher stance

Thu 31 Aug 2023
Posted by: Danielle Keen
Trade News
China and UK flags

Foreign secretary James Cleverly held meetings with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, in Beijing yesterday (30 August), the first senior representative from the UK government to do so in five years.

Despite criticism from within his own party, Cleverly said he is committed to taking a more constructive approach towards strained UK-China relations to ensure reliable economic ties.

However, this stance was challenged by a parliamentary report, published yesterday, urging government to take a tougher approach towards China, following security concerns and aggression in the South China Sea.

Direction required

The report, published by the Foreign Affairs Committee, criticised the UK’s inconsistent policy on China over the past decade.

It claimed the government’s failure to offer a coherent China strategy creates confusion for businesses and public institutions, such as universities, about how they should engage with China.

The authors called for the publication of a formal strategy, similar to a paper Germany released in July, outlining a clear approach to security and economic policy.

The report also acknowledged Taiwan’s independence, which China rejects. Beijing insists other countries follow suit on the world stage, adhering to its ‘one China policy,’ denying statehood to both Taiwan and Hong Kong.

MP criticism

The parliamentary report will please the many MPs who have been critical of Cleverly’s diplomacy, accusing the foreign secretary of appeasing an increasingly hostile threat.

Reuters reported one backbencher, who wished to remain anonymous, calling for the UK to "be robust towards China, but this looks the opposite."

Former prime minister, Liz Truss - who first appointed Cleverly as foreign secretary - claimed his current position is a U-turn from her demands for China to be classified as a threat to British national security.

Existing tensions

The UK-China relationship has become increasingly fraught over the past three years.

In 2020, the UK banned Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from the development of its 5G network, citing security concerns.

The UK also imposed sanctions on China in response to human rights violations of China’s Uyghur Muslim population in the North-West.

Nonetheless, Department for Business and Trade (DBT) figures indicate the UK’s economic relationship with China has remained strong, with yearly increases in trade volume since 2020.

In the year up to March 2023, the value of trade stood at £107.5bn, an increase of 11.3% on the previous year. This makes China the UK’s fourth largest trading partner.

Economic strife

China’s economy has been beset by problems in recent months, improving the chances it will be more receptive to Cleverly’s diplomacy.

While vast swathes of the globe battle rampant inflation, China has been facing deflationary figures for several quarters.

Its once-booming property market has also stalled. The BBC reported development titan Evergrande’s share price falling 80% this week.

As the US continues to distance itself economically, and numerous multinational companies shift their supply chains to alternative Indo-pacific nations, many commentators are questioning how and when China will emerge from its slump, and the degree to which the global economy will also suffer.