Fresh from offending Indians, Miliband goes soft on China

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It was Manchester but there was not a banana in sight. The Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, revisited the city yesterday in which he was deemed to have dented his chances of ever leading the Labour Party by posing with a banana and pulling silly faces a few months ago.

It was not so much the banana as the banana skin which was uppermost in his mind when he chose the city – which has the third biggest Chinese community in Europe – to launch a document on the future of British relations with the world's fastest-growing economy.

For he arrived fresh from a visit to India that is being labelled a "diplomatic disaster" after he caused such affront to politicians that the Indian Prime Minister is said to have written to Gordon Brown to complain about his ham-fisted imputation that the terrorist attack in Mumbai was linked to the disputed territory of Kashmir, over which India and Pakistan have fought three wars.

To make matters worse, he kept addressing India's septuagenarian Foreign Minister by his first name and putting his arm around him. It was, Indian commentators are saying, the worst visit by a British Foreign Secretary since India became independent in 1947.

Mr Miliband was clearly on best behaviour when he arrived in Manchester to lunch with leading members of the Chinese community. He must have been pleased to hear one of them saying over a dim sum lunch – from which toffee bananas were notably absent – that it was "reassuring that you recognise the differences [between the Chinese and British cultures] rather than taking the high moral stance which was the Blair/Bush approach".

It was unrealistic, they told him, to ask China to do in 30 years – on human rights as on industrialisation – what Europe had taken 200 years to achieve. "With China," another added, "it's not what you say, it's how you say it."

What Mr Miliband was saying was that Britain and China had common cause in the trade which would help the world out of recession, in fighting climate change and in working together as members of the UN Security Council.

He walked on egg shells as dignitaries and journalists questioned him on everything from China's commitment to climate change to whether it was undermining good governance in Africa. Nor did he have much to say on human rights.

There were mentions of that in the document, which calls for media freedom, the end of imprisonment without trial, less use of the death penalty, greater democracy in Hong Kong and "meaningful autonomy" for Tibet. But they are couched in terms of encouragement rather than criticism. The risk is that the words may be so bland they rouse the ire of human rights campaigners and yet be intrusive enough to irritate China.

It's a tricky business, this diplomacy, and the Chinese, whose Premier, Wen Jiabao, is to visit London next month, are as touchy as the Indians, if not more so.

Mr Miliband rounded off the day with a visit to Cedar Mount High School which has an exchange programme with China. He was joined by the Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, to talk about the school's other exchange scheme to Africa, where United players are Unicef ambassadors.

It was here that the Foreign Secretary risked a gaffe of diplomatic proportions by pointing out that Sir Alex was wearing light blue socks – the colour of United's Mancunian rivals. Sir Alex smiled a steely smile. Even jokes can be dangerous in banana country.