(Bloomberg) -- British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is trying to repair the UK’s relationship with China without being seen doing it.
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Sunak has in recent weeks sent a trade minister to Hong Kong while his envoy to the former British colony called for handling more disagreements with Beijing behind closed doors. UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly is expected to make a trip to China in the coming months.
Still, Sunak has so far stopped short of a personal show of engagement, like the leaders of France, Germany and Spain, who have all traveled to China to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping since he secured a third term as leader in October. The prime minister is highly unlikely to visit Xi in Beijing before the UK’s next general election, according to people familiar with the matter.
The approach reflects Sunak’s challenge as he attempts to steer the UK through a post-Brexit diplomatic landscape in which London can little afford to alienate either Washington or Beijing. He also must also navigate increasingly skeptical views of China at home, especially in his own Conservative Party.
Sunak doesn’t want to appear like he’s rewarding China with a high-level visit right now, the people said. Whether China will be satisfied by such an approach is unclear. Beijing would prefer that the UK sends a top economic or trade official with a business delegation rather than a foreign minister, according to a separate person familiar with the matter.
“Sunak is not a powerful prime minister and the Tory right certainly imposes constraints on what he can do, both in terms of immigration and relations with China,” said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS University in London. “Beijing expects London to stay closer to Washington, and so less likely to do anything like what Macron did in China, anyway.”
A spokesperson for the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and Sunak’s office pointed Bloomberg to Cleverly’s April 25 speech setting out the UK government’s position on China. “We should have every confidence in our collective ability to engage robustly and also constructively with China, not as an end in itself, but to manage risks and produce results,” he said at the time.
French President Emmanuel Macron provided Sunak with a cautionary tale when he led a group of executives to China in April. That effort that was widely criticized for straining Western unity on Ukraine and letting Beijing off the hook for its efforts to curb human rights in places like Xinjiang. The French leader’s suggestion the European Union should avoid being dragged into a US dispute with China over the self-ruled island of Taiwan sparked outrage across much of the democratic world.
There have been no face-to-face meetings between the top British and Chinese leaders since former Prime Minister Theresa May visited Beijing in 2018. A potential meeting between Sunak and Xi at the Group of 20 meeting in November was abruptly canceled, while the last public call between the nations’ leaders was with then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson more than a year ago.
Ties between the UK and China have frayed over the Communist Party’s crackdown on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy opposition in the wake of mass demonstrations in 2019. The UK has accused China of violating its handover agreement and has granted long-term visas to tens of thousands of people fleeing the city. Beijing has sanctioned senior British politicians in retaliation for their criticism of its alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
China’s decision to send Vice President Han Zheng, who until last year oversaw Hong Kong affairs, to King Charles III’s coronation earlier last month was widely covered in the British press as an insult. Tory hawks have also criticized a recent security policy review in which Sunak’s government declined to brand Beijing a “strategic threat.”
At a defense conference earlier this week, Sunak pledged to making a more “targeted and specific” approach in areas where China poses the greatest threat to its economic security. “But this is not an excuse for a blanket descent into protectionism,” he said.
The prime minister is managing several factions in the ruling party as he prepares for an election that must be held by January 2025. The Conservatives lost more than 1,000 seats in local elections last month, in what was widely interpreted as a sign the main opposition Labour Party was poised to return to power after 13 years.
In Parliament last month, Labour leader Keir Starmer blamed “a decade of ignoring these facts and Tory governments cozying up to Beijing” with making the UK vulnerable to Chinese coercion. “It is time for a full audit of UK-China relations, and to work more consistently with our allies to develop a long-term plan for Western engagement and a long-term plan for economic security,” Starmer said.
At the same time, Sunak risks getting left behind as US President Joe Biden joins his European counterparts in shifting toward greater engagement with China. US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan sat down with Wang Yi, China’s top diplomat, in Vienna last month in a two-day meeting seen as possible prelude to a call between Biden and Xi.
UK-China talks are happening at a lower level. British diplomats met with a host of senior Chinese officials during a recent trip to Beijing, according to people familiar with the matter. That included a meeting between permanent undersecretary of the foreign office, Philip Barton and Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang, the people said.
China would typically welcome a visit from any British minister, and would open the door for Sunak if he indicated such a desire, according to a person familiar with the matter. The person wasn’t aware of any such trip in the works.
Even if Sunak did choose to travel to China, there would be a limit to what he could achieve due to the Hong Kong visa program, which is strongly disliked in Beijing, said Tsang.
“There is the realistic issue of what Sunak thinks he can get by a visit to Beijing,” Tsang said. “Sunak may be a weak PM, he is not a stupid one.”
(Updates with Cleverly speech in seventh paragraph.)
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