James Cleverly has met senior officials in Beijing in a visit aimed at easing tensions with China but which risks deepening divisions in the Conservative Party.
The Foreign Secretary insisted the visit would allow him to have “tough conversations” with the Chinese on issues including repression in Hong Kong, and human rights abuses in Xinjiang province.
In a face-to-face meeting with Vice President Han Zheng, who played a leading role in the anti-democracy crackdown in Hong Kong, Mr Cleverly said regular meetings are important “to enhance understanding” and “to avoid misunderstanding”.
In the first visit by a UK foreign secretary to China for five years, Mr Cleverly told him they will “address the challenges and differences of opinion that all countries have in bilateral relations”.
But Mr Cleverly’s visit has been criticised by China hawks on the Tory benches, who want a tougher line against a state which has sanctioned several British MPs and peers for speaking out about human rights violations.
Former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith compared the Government’s approach to the appeasement of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Alicia Kearns said she had spoken to Mr Cleverly before his visit and urged him to pressure the Chinese on human rights concerns.
“I’m very hopeful that he will land those points about transnational repression. We all know we are seeing increased espionage on British shores and we are also seeing appalling human rights abuses against the Uighur, the Tibetans and many more,” the senior Tory said.
“It is absolutely important that Britain has a role in the Pacific where we make clear that we will stand up for the rule of law, for human rights and for self-determination.”
Ms Kearns told Sky News that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak should “absolutely” meet Chinese leader Xi Jinping if the opportunity arises because that is “how you prevent and deconflict potential issues”.
She said Mr Cleverly’s visit is “an opportunity to bring to an end two decades of failed deterrence” and “to make clear defence is not an escalation, and we won’t tolerate transnational intimidation”.
“But the visit needs to achieve outcomes in Britain’s interests – we await them.”
Her committee has published a report which recognises “the activities of the Chinese Communist Party as a threat to the UK and its interests” and that “the behaviour of the Chinese Communist Party is currently characterised by increased aggression towards the UK”.
The cross-party Foreign Affairs Committee called on the Government to publish an unclassified version of its China strategy to ensure cross-Whitehall coherence on the approach to Beijing, and for all relevant ministers to be briefed on the classified version of the document.
The MPs said the Government “should have had a policy of zero tolerance of transnational repression” which has seen the Chinese authorities seek to carry out repression of dissidents in countries including the UK.
“It should now announce a clear policy of zero tolerance of transnational repression and be prepared to expel any foreign diplomats who engage in intimidation of, or physical attacks on, British citizens or those who seek refuge on UK shore,” the committee said.
“If the Government is unwilling to defend its own people at home, and those seeking safety, it will lose all credibility at claims or attempts to deter autocracies and aggression abroad.”
The MPs also called for the Government to intensify efforts to discourage the use of Chinese technologies such as surveillance cameras “which are capable of being used for remote data harvesting” by Beijing’s security services.
The report also said the Government has failed to take “adequate action” to protect against the risk of Beijing using “economic coercion” by targeting strategically critical industries which rely on Chinese technology or investment.
On the disputed island of Taiwan, the committee said the UK should put in place “an effective policy of deterrence diplomacy” towards Beijing to protect the Taiwanese right to self-determination.
Published: by Radio NewsHub