PM won't say if he'll meet Xi at G20 as Cleverly seeks to repair ties with China

James Cleverly's trip to Beijing has been criticised over China's record on Hong Kong and human rights abuses, ITV News Asia Correspondent Debi Edward reports

Rishi Sunak has refused to say whether he will meet President Xi Jinping at next week's G20 summit, amid an attempt by the foreign secretary to repair ties with China during a visit to Beijing.

James Cleverly has been criticised for becoming the first foreign secretary to visit China in more than five years, with a former Tory party leader calling it "appeasement" of a country which has been accused of human rights abuses.

China's behaviour has sparked anger across the West in recent months and years over its perceived support of Russia's war in Ukraine, its crackdown on freedom in Hong Kong and its posturing toward Taiwan.

The prime minister said it is “perfectly possible” to engage with Beijing at the same time as standing up for UK interests and values, insisting Mr Cleverly's visit to China was “entirely sensible” and reflected “our approach” to the country.

But he would not be drawn - when twice asked by reporters - on whether he would meet his counterpart President Xi when they are both in Delhi for the upcoming G20 on September 9 and 10.

Pressed for an answer after first dodging the question, Mr Sunak said: "My schedule at the G20 hasn't been finalised."

Russian President Vladimir Putin, an ally of President Xi, has already said he will not attend the summit.

Mr Cleverly insisted he can influence China when meeting his counterpart in Beijing, but the Liberal Democrats said it was a "kick in the teeth" for him to meet the vice president, who is the so-called architect of the crackdown in Hong Kong.

Liberal Democrat Foreign Affairs spokesperson Layla Moran said: “The foreign secretary’s decision to meet with Han Zheng is a kick in the teeth for all of us who have argued that the UK Government must uphold its responsibilities under the Joint Declaration.

“To meet with this man at a time when Beijing is pursuing bounties against Hong Kong pro-democracy activists in our country sends entirely the wrong message."

But the Foreign Office insisted Mr Cleverly raised a number of issues with Vice President Han Zheng and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, including Chinese sanctions which have been placed on UK MPs.

"In detailed discussions on Hong Kong, he stressed the damage caused by the Beijing-imposed National Security Law to rights and freedoms and consequently to China’s international reputation," the Foreign Office said in a statement.

“He also emphasised the importance to the international community of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.

“And he called for the immediate lifting of sanctions against Parliamentary colleagues. The foreign secretary made clear the UK’s strength of feeling about the mass incarceration of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang.”

Before the meeting Mr Cleverly said he was “clear-eyed” that China was not going to change “overnight” but insisted diplomacy works.

“I’ve had a number of conversations with senior representatives of the Chinese government, and I have raised human rights in every single one of those meetings and I will continue to do so," he said.

He added: "It is important that we maintain regular dialogue, regular lines of communication. That is what I am doing, because we do seek to influence, that is what diplomacy is all about. We do seek to influence China.”

But Iain Duncan Smith, a former Conservatives leader said the meeting was the latest stage of "Project Kowtow" and it "smells terribly of appeasement".

"It's like we want more business, therefore we don't want to upset the Chinese too much," he said. "What we end up with is that they think we are just too weak."

Mr Cleverly said he would not “shy away” from “tough conversations” while in Beijing.

He is in China for talks with the country’s foreign affairs minister Wang Yi and vice president Han Zheng.

The minister will also meet with Chinese officials and plans to address issues ranging from climate change to international security, while emphasising Beijing’s responsibility on the global stage.

In a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, he said: “Engaging with China doesn’t mean that we shy away from the tough conversations.

“It’s about voicing our concerns directly – face to face.

“That’s why I’m here.”

The trip takes places as the Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) has called for a better approach to dealing with China’s assertiveness and its potential impact on the UK’s interests and global stability.

In a new 87-page report, it concluded there appeared to be “confusion across Whitehall about the Tilt to the Indo-Pacific, stemming from a failure to explain the policy”.

The report urges all relevant ministers are briefed on the higher classification version of the China strategy.

MPs highlighted the urgency of an unclassified China strategy that encompasses not only trade and security but also diplomatic engagement, human rights, and technological cooperation.

The committee also called for the government to recognise that the repeated attacks on Hong Kong dissidents are part of a wider Chinese Communist Party policy of repression.

It recommended the government should put across that this policy in unacceptable when speaking with representatives of the Chinese government.

The Tory chair of the committee Alicia Kearns said: “In any conversation about the Indo-Pacific, China looms large.

"China’s global ambitions and desire to rival the reach and influence of the West were made clear at the recent BRICS summit, but the writing has been on the wall for years.

China's President Xi Jinping attends the plenary session during the 2023 BRICS Summit. Credit: AP

"It’s only by shoring up our networks in the Indo-Pacific that we can temper China’s economic and political expansionism, offering a viable, democratic alternative to Indo-Pacific states.”

She added: “Strengthening our diplomatic, defensive and economic ties in the Indo-Pacific is critical – if the West leaves a vacuum, China will eagerly fill it."

On Taiwan, which she described as an “important ally and partner of the UK”, Ms Kearns said: “The government should stand shoulder to shoulder with Taiwan, making clear that attempts to undermine Taiwanese self-determination are unacceptable.”

Shadow foreign secretary David Lammy said the success of his opposite number’s visit would be determined by whether he can secure an end to Chinese sanctions on British parliamentarians.

In response to the call for the full, unclassified China strategy to be published, senior figures in government said everything they were comfortable with putting in the public domain already had been.

In his Mansion House speech, Mr Cleverly spoke about the need for engagement and balanced policy towards China, highlighting the complexities of its history and current global role.

He stressed the importance of safeguarding national security, deepening cooperation with partners, and addressing human rights concerns while fostering open and stable relations.

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