Britain confronted China over its conduct towards Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang on Friday at a bilateral ministerial meeting, signaling London’s more direct approach to raising concerns with Beijing.
British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly spoke for 30 minutes through interpreters with Chinese Vice President Han Zheng, who traveled to London to attend the coronation of King Charles III on Saturday.
The meeting occurred 10 days after Cleverly Delivered a speech at the Mansion House describing in depth Britain’s position on China.
The speech, widely seen as a response to China hawks in conservative side banks, laid out the case for engagement with China, in both areas of disagreement and agreement.
After the bilateral meeting, Cleverly made it clear that he had put the new approach into practice, revealing that he and Han discussed “areas of deep disagreement and vital cooperation.”
He wrote on Twitter: “Today with Vice President Han Zheng, I made clear the UK’s views on Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan. We also discussed working together on climate change, economic ties and people-to-people ties.”
According to the officials, Cleverly also raised Beijing’s decision in 2021 to sanction five UK MPs who had criticized the Chinese Communist Party’s attitude towards human rights. Uncomfortably for Anglo-Chinese relations, the group included Tom Tugendhat, who, though a minor MP at the time, was promoted to UK security minister.
The bilateral meeting on the eve of the coronation took place amid anger in the most aggressive conservative circles over Chinese President Xi Jinping’s decision to send Han, the politician accused of monitoring the violation of the joint UK-China statement on Hong Kongto the actual ceremony.
Lord Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong before the territory was handed back to China, said the election of the attendees showed that China did not give “a damn” about Britain.
The tone of the meeting between Cleverly and Han, which took place at 1 Carlton Gardens in London, where foreign ministers are often entertained, was seen as professional and courteous by the UK.
According to people close to the talks, Han informally suggested that Cleverly should visit China. No formal invitation has been issued to the foreign secretary, despite the government making clear its willingness to hold face-to-face talks in mainland China following the Covid pandemic.
The foreign secretary’s comments on the meeting were scrutinized by China-watchers in Britain. Sophia Gaston, foreign policy chief at the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange, said Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was looking at relations with China, and foreign policy more generally, through a “prism of ‘pragmatic engagement’, and with a view to to Treasury”.
He added: “It is fair to say that the shift towards dialogue with China. . . it will only be legitimized through a much more judicious approach to national security.”
Friday marked a day of diplomacy as Sunak held one-on-one meetings with several world leaders in London for the coronation, including Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins and the Amir Tamim Bin. Hamad al-Thani from Qatar.
Meanwhile, King Charles attended a meeting of Commonwealth heads of government and then hosted a reception for foreign royals, leaders and dignitaries at Buckingham Palace.
The Chinese embassy in London was contacted for comment.