Cleverly defends China visit plans and pledges to use UK’s global ‘influence’

The Foreign Secretary said he will not shy away from addressing human rights issues or the situation in Hong Kong if he travels to Beijing.

Patrick Daly
Thursday 29 June 2023 18:38 BST
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly has said the UK can show ‘influence’ by visiting China (Victoria Jones/PA)
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly has said the UK can show ‘influence’ by visiting China (Victoria Jones/PA) (PA Wire)

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly has defended a possible trip to China as he argued that international reforms cannot happen without recognising Beijing’s global financial influence.

Mr Cleverly confirmed last week that he is “looking at the options” for a potential visit to China – the first by a UK foreign secretary since Jeremy Hunt went in 2018.

Speaking on Thursday, the Cabinet minister said he believes the UK could exert “influence” over the Chinese Communist Party when it comes to international issues, as he vowed to address its human rights record and treatment of Hong Kong if he does make the trip to the Far East.

I very passionately believe that the UK has agency, we have a voice, we have influence, and we should try to utilise that

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly

Mr Cleverly, taking questions after a speech given to think tank Chatham House’s London Conference, recalled a talk he gave at the Mansion House in April, where he said the UK needs to protect itself from China and build a strong network of allies while also engaging with the Asian superpower.

He said: “I very passionately believe that the UK has agency, we have a voice, we have influence and we should try to utilise that.

“And that is best done through direct engagement.

“So the timing and the details of any trip that I might make to China are still yet to be decided.

“But, as and when I do go, I will of course talk about the issues that I raised in the past… their internal human rights activity, their attitude towards Hong Kong, concerns over the Taiwan strait, and others.”

The Foreign Secretary has argued against isolating China, despite wariness in the West – including among China hawks on the Conservative backbenches – over the country’s growing assertiveness and refusal to criticise Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Mr Cleverly, whose speech on Thursday focused on reforming multilateral partnerships, said he is aware that international reforms have to take into consideration China’s financial links with developing nations.

“One of the things that I’m very conscious about is how many smaller and poorer countries are very heavily indebted to China,” he said.

“And if I’m going to drive the reform that I intend to drive in the multilateral system, China is a very significant and influential player in many of those institutions.

“And therefore engaging with them is an important part of the agenda I’ve set out in this speech.”

Polly Truscott, Amnesty International UK’s foreign policy adviser, said Mr Cleverly would need to “do more than talk” if he is to use his possible visit to change China’s attitude when it comes to the repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang and protest crackdowns in Hong Kong.

“Without securing clear commitments that Beijing will stop these abuses, the Government risks appearing to ignore human rights abuses in the name of trade and security,” she said.

Senior Tory Mr Cleverly argued during his speech that, with the world currently “living through a turning point in the history of humanity”, the make-up of the United Nations Security Council should change.

He said there should be permanent African representation and membership for India, Brazil, Germany and Japan on the international panel.

The Security Council currently has five permanent members – the UK, US, China, Russia and France – with 10 non-permanent members elected for two-year terms.

Mr Cleverly also pressed for reform of the World Trade Organisation to reflect the “digital economy” and said there needs to be a multilateral approach to regulation when it comes to emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI).

He said the world is experiencing a “period of dizzying and rapid economic, demographic, technological and social change” and that broader coalitions are required to address those challenges.

Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky was awarded the Chatham House Prize for his “response to the brutal and relentless onslaught” to Ukraine and for having “demonstrated a mastery of international diplomacy”.

He addressed the conference from Kyiv as ambassador Vadym Prystaiko accepted the award in person.

Mr Zelensky said: “The Chatham House Prize for Ukraine is more proof that the world believes in Ukraine, believes in Ukrainian, believes in our victory.

“I want you to know that we have success on the front line thanks to our historic soldiers and of course thanks to our partners, and the UK is one of the obvious leaders in this support.”

Following his own speech, Mr Cleverly was asked about Russian President Vladimir Putin facing an internal rebellion by the mercenary Wagner Group at the weekend.

The Foreign Secretary said the mutiny led by Wagner owner Yevgeny Prigozhin was “to a large extent an internal matter for Russia and Putin”.

“Their frictions are up to them. The leadership of Russia is entirely and exclusively an issue for the Russian people,” he said.

“We will not be distracted. Our commitment is to support Ukraine until they have recovered their sovereignty, and then help them rebuild and renew their country after the conflict, to provide them with the military and financial resources to do both of those things.

“That is the plan. We’re not distracted by these events. We’re sticking with the plan.”

Armed forces minister James Heappey, speaking at the same conference on Thursday afternoon, indicated that the upcoming defence command paper would be “nerdy” and focused more on the inner workings of the armed forces than on headline-grabbing announcements.

“It is the way that the whole of the enterprise fits together that really brings credibility to your force.

“Ben (Wallace) and I revel in the idea that this might be the most boring defence command paper ever,” he joked.

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