Cleverly’s visit ignites hopes for better Sino-UK relations

By Imran Khalid | Gwadar Pro Sep 2, 2023

Editor's Note: The writer is a freelance columnist on international affairs based in Karachi, Pakistan. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily the views of Gwadar Pro.

In a significant diplomatic development, United Kingdom Foreign Secretary James Cleverly visited Beijing this week, marking the first high-level exchange between China and the UK in half a decade, reflecting a significant step towards mending the strained relations between the two countries.

The five-year hiatus in high-level exchanges had cast a shadow over the bilateral relationship, making Cleverly's visit all the more meaningful. During his visit, Cleverly engaged in separate meetings with China’s Vice-President Han Zheng and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. These discussions underscored the shared aspiration for improved bilateral relations.

Both Chinese officials expressed their optimism about the potential for the UK government to collaborate with Beijing in fostering mutual understanding and trust. Cleverly, too, is committed to keeping lines of communication open, facilitating pragmatic cooperation and engaging with China on a range of issues. He pledged to facilitate an environment conducive to pragmatic cooperation between the two nations. Prior to his visit, Cleverly's positive remarks to the UK media had already kindled hopes. Cleverly's visit to Beijing signifies a pragmatic approach to Sino-British relations. His commitment to open dialogue on areas of contention and the importance of mutual cooperation echoes a mature approach.

British PM Rishi Sunak's shift towards renewed engagement with China reflects a pragmatic and business-oriented approach. This approach has, however, faced criticism from certain influential Conservative Party members, who caution against the potential risks of increased Chinese influence in the UK economy. Prime Minister Sunak has acknowledged the value of discussions on shared interests. These areas of "common ground" include critical global challenges like climate change, global health, and economic stability. By pursuing constructive dialogue on these pressing issues, the UK demonstrates its commitment to responsible international cooperation, harnessing the potential for mutual benefit and progress in a complex world. However, the opposition within the Conservative Party to Sunak's attempts to foster relations with China is reaching unprecedented levels. Cleverly's visit to China took place against the backdrop of a major shift in the British Parliament's rhetoric. In a recent report, the UK Parliament referred to Taiwan as an "independent country," a choice of words that has added complexity and bitterness to the evolving China-UK relationship. Cleverly's visit holds significant symbolic importance, marking the first high-level exchange between the two nations in half a decade and signaling a genuine attempt to mend ties. However, the UK Parliament's terminology regarding Taiwan raises concerns regarding its respect for China's sovereignty. This divergence in perspectives adds a layer of intricacy to Cleverly's visit, as his government seeks to enhance cooperation with China while respecting its core principles and interests.

Indications abound that the British government is recalibrating its stance toward China. In response to critiques of his visit, Cleverly emphasized the importance of collaborative efforts with China on pressing global challenges like climate change and habitat protection. Simultaneously, Cleverly recognized the necessity of safeguarding national security interests while deepening economic cooperation. His stern admonition that disengagement from China could be perceived as a sign of weakness underscores the government's commitment to a pragmatic and nuanced approach, one that seeks to navigate the complexities of the modern world while seizing opportunities for mutual benefit and global progress. The positive aspect of Cleverly's visit was his realistic understanding that it would not yield significant breakthroughs. Nevertheless, his optimism centered on the prospect of initiating communication channels between the two sides. "I'm realistic that one phone call, one visit, one meeting isn't going to fundamentally change the direction of travel," Cleverly said. Cleverly has faced severe internal opposition, particularly from Iain Duncan Smith, a vocal China critic and former Conservative Party chairman, leading the charge. Smith, previously sanctioned by China for his extremely biased vitriol against Beijing in the past, dismissed the foreign secretary's visit as futile, arguing against any appeasement towards China. This clash within the Conservative Party highlights the complexities surrounding UK-China relations and the diverse perspectives shaping its diplomatic approach.

The pragmatic stance adopted by Western leaders toward China reflects a recognition of China's pivotal role across diverse arenas, from climate change to the global economy and supply chains. Additionally, the United Kingdom faces its own pressing challenges. The post-Brexit era has seen a decline in the UK's international influence, coupled with lackluster economic performance. In this context, engaging with the Chinese market becomes not just an option but a necessity for revitalizing the UK's economy amid a global slowdown. The imperatives of diplomacy and economics converge, emphasizing the wisdom of fostering cooperation with China to chart a path forward. While Cleverly's visit holds promise for enhanced China-UK relations and economic cooperation, the UK's repeated challenges to China's core interests concerning Taiwan could potentially jeopardize the stability of the bilateral relationship. A balanced approach that fosters constructive dialogue while respecting sensitive geopolitical concerns is essential to navigating the complex dynamics of international diplomacy successfully.

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