British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly raised concerns over China’s human rights record and explored ways for the two countries to better communicate during a visit to Beijing on Wednesday.
The trip was the first by a U.K. foreign secretary to China in more than five years, underscoring a downturn in relations over a series of issues, including Beijing’s curbing of civil liberties in Hong Kong, a former British colony, abuses against Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region, China’s support for Russia and Britain’s close security ties with the United States.
Cleverly met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Vice President Han Zheng during his one-day visit. The diplomats underscored the importance of dialogue between their countries, though they also alluded to the souring of ties in recent years.
Wang said cooperation between China and Britain had “global impact.”
“Dialogue and cooperation are the keywords and main tone of China’s policy towards the U.K.,” he said. “Of course, we have also noticed that from time to time there have been some noises in the Sino-British relationship, and some people have even questioned your visit to Beijing.”
Cleverly, whose government’s China policy has been described by critics as inconsistent, has said it was paramount to maintain communication with Beijing to avoid misunderstandings.
“It is important that countries like ours meet and speak face to face on regular occasions to enhance understanding, to avoid misunderstanding and to address the challenges and differences of opinion that all countries have in bilateral relations,” Cleverly said after meeting with Han.
He said he 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 said he told Wang that there are “opportunities that could benefit the wider world if we can ensure that our bilateral relationship is positive.”
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is aiming to pursue a nuanced, non-confrontational approach to relations with Beijing. He has described China as a growing “systemic challenge” to Britain’s values and interests, but he has also stressed the need to maintain a relationship with the Asian superpower.
Cleverly’s visit came as British lawmakers on Parliament’s foreign affairs committee published a report that called the activities of the Chinese Communist Party “a threat to the U.K. and its interests.”
The lawmakers criticized British authorities for a lack of coherence in their approach to Beijing and called on the government to publish an unclassified version of its China strategy.
They also urged the U.K. government to take a harder stance against Chinese attempts to target dissidents abroad — including those who have sought refuge in Britain — and called for officials to intensify efforts to discourage the use of some Chinese technologies such as in Chinese-made surveillance cameras.
Lawmaker Alicia Kearns, who chairs the committee, said keeping up a dialogue with Beijing was preferable to disengagement.
“It is more important that we are in the room with them in stark disagreement, rather than cutting off relations,” she told the BBC.
Asked about Cleverly’s agenda at a daily briefing Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said that, as two of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and major economies, China and Britain should “shoulder the common responsibility of promoting world peace, stability and development.”
He added, however, that “issues related to Hong Kong and Xinjiang are purely China’s internal affairs, and no country should interfere.”
The visit was not expected to yield any major tangible results due in part to the countries’ conflicting objectives, said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London.
“The fact that they are talking is a positive,” Tsang said. “We need to engage in conversation with China, we need to have effective communication channels with China — even if we don’t agree on anything — because China does matter.”
Associated Press writers Simina Mistreanu in Taipei, Taiwan, and Jill Lawless and Sylvia Hui in London contributed to this report.