James Cleverly defends first China trip by foreign secretary in five years as MPs call for openness on policy

The foreign secretary has insisted "diplomacy makes a difference" as he met senior members of the Chinese government in Beijing - despite questions back home over his party's approach to the country.

James Cleverly met foreign affairs minister Wang Yi and vice president Han Zhen in the first visit to China by a UK foreign secretary in more than five years.

A Foreign Office statement said there had been "detailed discussions" on Hong Kong, adding that Mr Cleverly "made clear the UK's strength of feeling about the mass incarceration of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang", and he called on China to immediately lift sanctions on UK politicians.

The ministers also discussed Beijing's "malign cyber activity", the situation in Taiwan and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

And both sides agreed on the "the importance of direct cooperation" to tackle climate change and the "potential of AI to unlock huge opportunities".

Politics live: Cleverly meets top Chinese officials in landmark trip

But the meetings came amid a rift in the Conservatives over whether the government should take a tougher stance on Beijing, with former party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith going as far as comparing the current approach to the appeasement of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

After meeting Mr Zheng early on Wednesday morning, Mr Cleverly told reporters his visit was about "making sure we are able to speak regularly about bilateral issues - both the areas where we disagree but also areas where we need to cooperate", as well as making sure China understands the UK's core positions.

"[China] is an important country, it is a large country, an influential country, and a complicated country, and therefore our relationship with China will necessarily be just as complicated and sophisticated," added the foreign secretary.

"We are clear-eyed about the areas where we have fundamental disagreements with China and I raise those issues when we meet, but I think it is important we also recognise that we have to have a pragmatic sensible working relationship with China because of the issues that affect us all around the globe.

"So, of course, we will pursue a pragmatic working relationship, but that does of course mean raising the issues where we disagree when we have the opportunity to do so."

Asked if words in meetings would be enough to spark change, Mr Cleverly replied: "Diplomacy makes a difference, that's why it exists, that is why it is a function of international relations that has endured for centuries.

"Regular face-to-face discussions, where you can raise those issues where we disagree directly, unambiguously, without being filtered through media, are incredibly important.

"I am clear-eyed... that we are not going to change China overnight and we are certainly not going to do it in one individual meeting. But it is important that we maintain regular dialogue."

'Confusion across Whitehall' on China

Mr Cleverly's trip comes on the same day MPs on the Foreign Affairs Committee called for an unclassified strategy on China that does not just deal with trade and security, but also diplomatic engagement, human rights and technological cooperation.

The committee's 87-page report is in response to the "Tilt to the Indo-Pacific" announced in the Integrated Review of 2021, in which the government identified Russia as an "active threat" and China as a "systemic challenge".

But the committee's report said there was "confusion across Whitehall" about the new policy focus, arising from a "failure to explain" it.

Alicia Kearns, the Conservative chair of the committee, told Sky News the government's current China strategy was "at the highest possible security level".

"That means that some government ministers have not even seen it," she added. "So I question how you can have a comprehensive cross-government strategy where ministers themselves don't know what they're working towards."

Ms Kearns said there was "big uncertainty" for the business community and academics, leaving them "unsure of the boundaries between caution and collaboration" with China.

"Now, the Chinese Communist Party are very explicit on what they're seeking to achieve, and they are therefore exploiting this uncertainty, which is why we have to end it for the publication of an unclassified China strategy," she said.

In the report, the chair also described Taiwan - which fears an invasion by China - as an "important ally and partner of the UK" and urged the government to "stand shoulder to shoulder" with the island and make clear that attempts to undermine its self-determination were "unacceptable".

Read more:
Foreign secretary will be walking tightrope
County in China offers cash 'reward' for newlywed couples

'China cannot be ignored'

Responding to the report, a government spokesperson said the Integrated Review refresh "outlines clearly and in detail our commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific".

They said Mr Cleverly had set out the China strategy too, "including strengthening our national security protections and engaging where it is in the UK's interests to do so - that is what he is now doing during his trip to China".

The spokesperson added: "We are reviewing the report's findings in detail and will respond in due course."

The visit signals a further move in government policy to engage with Beijing, despite ongoing calls from Tory MPs - some of whom have been sanctioned by China - to take a harder line on the country's activities, especially when it comes to human rights violations.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has already softened his language - moving from calling China "the biggest long-term threat to Britain" in his leadership campaign last summer, to instead saying the UK should stand up to China "with robust pragmatism".

But his predecessor in Number 10, Liz Truss, has criticised the direction of travel and called for a more robust approach, saying in a speech earlier this year that French President Emmanuel Macron's own visit to China was "a sign of weakness", and Western governments had been "appeasing" the autocratic regime.

Ms Kearns didn't criticise the foreign secretary's trip, saying it was "more important James Cleverly is in the room vociferously disagreeing with them" and backed the idea of Mr Sunak meeting with Chinese President Xi at the upcoming G20 summit.

'Chop and change' should end

Labour Party chair Anneliese Dodds said the UK needed "a far more strategic approach towards China", telling Sky News: "The Chinese leadership always takes a long-term approach when it comes to their interests, but as a country over the last 13 years, we've really not had a strategic approach towards China... We need to have that longer term approach."

Asked if she would be happy for Labour's shadow foreign secretary David Lammy to make the trip to Beijing, Ms Dodds said: "There needs to be engagement, but it can't be ad hoc."