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UK foreign minister James Cleverly on Wednesday sought to repair ties with China during the first high-level British government visit to Beijing for five years, emphasising the need for further dialogue even if it included areas of “disagreement”.
In a meeting with Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, Cleverly said he had “always been able to speak frankly” with his counterpart but also pointed to “opportunities that could benefit the wider world if we can ensure that our bilateral relationship is positive”.
“As two countries that have a global outlook, that trade widely across the world, and whose future prosperity is dependent upon peace and dialogue, it is important for us to maintain these channels of communication,” he added.
Cleverly’s visit came as worsening ties between Washington and Beijing have cast a cloud over China’s wider relations with the west and pressured international businesses to reduce their dependence on the country.
It coincided with a visit from US secretary of commerce Gina Raimondo, who this week also pushed to reopen communication with China but warned that American companies were beginning to see it as “uninvestable”.
Over the course of his one-day trip, which also included a meeting with Chinese vice-president Han Zheng, Cleverly sought to balance a push for more communication with a willingness to highlight the differences that have weighed heavily on relations between the two countries for years.
Cleverly has been criticised for going to Beijing by parliamentarians in his own Conservative party, with some expressing concern over China’s human rights record in Xinjiang and its policies in Hong Kong, where a 2020 national security law has suppressed protest.
“I’ve had a number of conversations with senior representatives of the Chinese government, and I have raised human rights in every single one of those meetings and I will continue to do so,” Cleverly told broadcasters on Wednesday.
In response to a question about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he said it was in China’s interests for the war to come to “a fair and successful conclusion”, according to the BBC. China has declined to condemn the invasion.
Wang struck a similarly cautious tone to Cleverly, emphasising “dialogue and co-operation” but also referring to “current difficulties” and “noise” in Sino-British relations, which he said were “facing the decision of what path to take”.
Both UK prime minister Rishi Sunak and Chinese president Xi Jinping are expected to attend the G20 summit in New Delhi next month.
“Ultimately, it is important for our prime minister and your president to have the opportunity to speak directly as well,” Cleverly told Wang.
At talks with Cleverly at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, Han referred to meetings he had attended this year “with friends from the UK business community”, including HSBC, Standard Chartered and Jardine Matheson.
“British and Chinese enterprises look forward to more practical co-operation and deepening our co-operation in the economy and finance, and more areas,” said Han.
At a meeting at the British ambassador’s residence with about 15 UK businesses with a presence in China, Cleverly emphasised the need to avoid disengaging with the country, according to one person in attendance.
British business groups said the UK foreign secretary’s visit had been received well by companies, many of whom have this year sent senior executives to the mainland for the first time since three years of zero-Covid restrictions were lifted.
Julian Fisher, chair of the British Chambers of Commerce in Beijing, said “three years of zero Covid have left China in a very unusual position”, adding visits by senior UK government representatives should be “more frequent”.