China wants 'concrete measures' from Britain over Cameron's Dalai Lama meeting

David Cameron and Nick Clegg meet the Dalai Lama in May 2012. Photo: Downing Street

Is David Cameron effectively banned from China because he met the Dalai Lama last year?

Today's Telegraph front page claims he is. The answer is far from a yes or a no.

What's clear from conversations I had today is that the Chinese government is indeed putting pressure on the British government.

Chinese officials are hinting that they want to secure a face saving apology from Downing Street after David Cameron's meeting with the Tibetan spiritual leader last year.

Today I asked the Chinese foreign ministry if the government wanted an apology from Downing Street.

The spokeswoman replied that Chinese officials had been "clear" with UK diplomats that they expected "concrete measures" to repair relations.

I asked if she could clarify what she meant by "concrete measures" but there was no clear explanation. Only a clear refusal to use the word apology or explicitly say that the UK has to say sorry.

I did get a chance to talk to her after the press briefing and she insisted there was no demand for an apology from Britain, but that when people have a disagreement they have to do something to solve the problem - again that hint that only a sorry will do.

The UK government isn't budging, for now at least, and is taking some comfort from the great British public who largely, it's believed, would not welcome the Prime Minister rolling over because of pressure from Beijing.

All recent British prime ministers except for Margaret Thatcher have met the Dalai Lama. China's reaction to such meetings is well-rehearsed. Cue condemnation from Chinese ministers and diplomats, a sulky show of anger in response to a meeting with a man that Beijing views as a separatist leader.

David Cameron now hasn't visited Beijing since 2010. The first leader of a major European country to win the race to be the first to visit - after the new Chinese leadership was appointed in March - was the French president Fran├žois Hollande.

Cameron had a potential slot to come over in April but it was cancelled. Last year the Cameron visit was on, then off, then definitely off after the Dalai Lama meeting.

True, civil servants and junior ministers have been coming and going since the Dalai Lama meeting last year, but they've been met with a certain frostiness. One senior UK civil servant was told he could come to Beijing but that there would be no one from the Chinese side to see him.

I've spoken to a couple of European diplomats and the view from one senior official was that it would help Britain "fantastically" if this Dalai Lama row could be solved. After all, he added, Chinese businesses do watch what their political leaders do and say.

However, business relations do not appear to be suffering: Chinese investment in the UK last year was four times what it was during the previous three decades, according to UK officials.

Not bad especially when ministerial-level relations are supposed to be frigid. The problem is no one can say if that four times figure would be even higher if this current stand off wasn't happening.

What's changed? The Chinese appear to be trying to see if they can force an apology from the British, using diplomats to warn of future investment in the UK being harmed if Downing Street doesn't say sorry.

This is a more assertive China trying to see if it can gain greater ground in the diplomatic landscape.

The British see China boxing itself into a corner and hope eventually their demands for an apology will dry out if Downing Street refuses to blink.

The tactics could take months to play out. Relations with China remain fragile.

David Cameron is still expected to visit Beijing this year; at this rate it will be closer to Christmas before we see him back on his first visit for almost three years.