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Opinion | UK-China relations: Cleverly prioritizes pragmatism

By Grenville Cross

Every year, at London's historic Mansion House, the Lord Mayor of London's Easter Banquet is held for the diplomatic community. By tradition, speeches are given by the Lord Mayor of the City of London (currently Nicholas Lyons) and the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs (currently James Cleverly), and they are then responded to by the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps (currently Ivan Romero-Martinez). It is invariably an opportunity for foreign secretaries to set out their stalls on a range of foreign policy issues, but not this time.

This year's Easter Banquet, held on April 25, focused exclusively on the UK's post-Brexit foreign policy on China.

As Cleverly's predecessor, Liz Truss, delivered the Easter Banquet speech in 2022, everybody hoped this year's address would be of a higher caliber, and they were not disappointed. Widely seen as the most incompetent foreign secretary since World War II (even trumping Dominic Raab), Truss' remarks were little more than a mishmash of soundbites (her stock-in-trade) and platitudes.

Having told China it must "play by the rules", Truss declared its rise as a superpower would be "cut short" if it did not behave as she wanted it to. Whereas the West would ensure Taiwan could defend itself, she envisaged a "global NATO" that would "pre-empt threats in the Indo-Pacific". Although the speech could have been written for her by the White House, and would have titillated the Five Eyes diplomats present, it did nothing to enhance British interests in the places that count.

By contrast, Cleverley's remarks were generally on a higher plane, albeit reminiscent of the curate's egg, being good in parts. While the speech had been drafted for him by foreign office insiders, parts of it were thoughtful, even insightful. However, as he needed to appeal to different audiences, it was partly historical, partly constructive and partly inflammatory.

Although the UK's anti-China forces, epitomized by Cold War throwbacks like Iain Duncan Smith, David Alton and Alicia Kearns, wanted Cleverly to describe China in the harshest terms, he refused to oblige. It was, he insisted, "impossible", "impractical" and "unwise" to describe China in one word, whether as "threat", "partner" or "adversary". Anybody hoping that British foreign policy could be reduced (a la Truss) to a soundbite "will be disappointed".

Cleverly began by paying tribute to China's rich history, noting that, after every tumultuous period, it "has always re-emerged". The inventions of the Chinese people, which included paper, printing, gunpowder and the compass, were things that "transformed the fortunes of the whole of humanity". This explained why China's economy was among the world's largest for 20 of the last 22 centuries, and was also why, in 1820, China comprised a third of global GDP, more than America, the UK and Europe combined.

Having acknowledged, albeit fleetingly, that "foreign aggression" was one of the calamities that had befallen China, he explained how, over the last 45 years, the "enterprising genius" of the Chinese people had helped the country to achieve the "biggest and fastest economic expansion the world has ever known". Whereas 800 million people had lifted themselves out of poverty, he emphasized that a "stable, prosperous and peaceful China is good for Britain and good for the world", which sounded reasonable enough.

Having explained that conflict between China and the US was not inevitable, he acknowledged that "no significant global problem – from climate change to pandemic prevention, from economic instability to nuclear proliferation – can be solved without China". To disengage from China would be to "give up on addressing humanity's greatest problems".

Although Western ideologues openly suggest the disengagement of the UK (and the West in general) from China, Cleverly declined to play ball. Instead, he said his government would "advance British interests directly with China", while also "defending our national security and our values". There was, moreover, an "obligation to future generations to engage, because otherwise we would be failing in our duty to sustain – and shape – the international order".

At this point, Cleverly must have realized he had gone as far as he could without provoking a rebellion amongst the China hawks, always a noisy group in Parliament. Although his remarks reflected the more statesmanlike stance adopted towards Beijing by the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, he still knew he had to proceed carefully, which meant tossing some "red meat" to the fanatics.

He, therefore, declared that China had violated its pledges to uphold Hong Kong's freedoms, which was why "we gave nearly 3 million of Hong Kong's people a path to British citizenship," not appreciating the irony. He seemed unaware that, in cynically trying to gut Hong Kong, the UK is itself in a state of ongoing non-compliance with the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984.

His speech's drafters had apparently not informed him that, in 2008, Britain's then Attorney General, Lord (Peter) Goldsmith, had advised that the granting of full British citizenship to BN(O) passport holders "would be a breach of the commitment made between China and the UK in the 1984 Joint Declaration on the future of Hong Kong."

As with Truss in 2022, Cleverly failed to mention how Beijing, with consummate skill and without recourse to military force, had saved the "one country, two systems" policy when insurrectionists, with Five Eyes' encouragement, sought to wreck Hong Kong in 2019-20. He also suppressed the welcome news that Beijing, despite the joint declaration only ever envisaging that Hong Kong's capitalist system and way of life would endure for 50 years after 1997, announced last year that both will continue after 2047. He clearly reasoned that, if he highlighted anything positive, it could undermine his criticisms, which would never do.

He will, moreover, have delighted the anti-China lobby with his superficial observations about the situation in the Xinjiang Region, waxing lyrical about a "gulag archipelago". As this was his propaganda moment, he made no attempt to analyze the terrorist situation that formed the backdrop to the tensions (car bombings in Urumqi, for example, killed 43 people and wounded 94 others in 2014), or to explain the importance of de-radicalizing fanatics (actual or potential), or to understand the significance of providing skills to people who might otherwise be led astray by zealots. He only wanted to pacify the hardliners, even if it meant ignoring China's side of the story.

When, however, Cleverly complained about China conducting what he called "the biggest military build-up in peacetime history", he was most exposed. Having pointed to China's new warships and its "bases in the South China Sea and elsewhere", he then queried "why is China making this colossal investment". The answer, however, was blindingly obvious to the assembled diplomats, as China is not only being encircled by the US and its allies but also directly threatened by them.

The US, for example, now has 23 military bases in Japan alone, together with an estimated 50,000 troops. It has 15 bases in Korea, and an estimated 23,468 troops. In the Philippines, it currently has five military bases, and four new ones, facing Taiwan, will shortly be operational.

Although Cleverly struck a conciliatory tone over Taiwan, declaring "we want to see a peaceful settlement of the differences across the Strait," he made no mention of how, to destabilize China, the US is militarizing the island, using it as a base for espionage activities, and even, according to its leader, Tsai Ing-wen (speaking on Oct 28, 2021), stationing American troops there.

As if all of this was not sufficiently intimidatory, NATO, with US backing, is now forging closer ties with both Japan and South Korea, making clear this is aimed at China. The AUKUS partnership, between the US, Australia and the UK, likewise targets China, and Washington's decision, announced on April 26, to deploy US nuclear-armed submarines to South Korea and involve Seoul in its nuclear planning will also alarm Beijing.

Anybody listening to Cleverly would have concluded he was wholly unaware of China's concerns over the West's military expansionism in its backyard, something the UK, like the US, would never tolerate at home. The more likely explanation, however, is that his ignorance was feigned, and he felt obliged to distort things in order to counter-balance the positive aspects of his speech, thereby placating the bigots in both the UK and the US.

One individual, however, who refused to be placated was Iain Duncan Smith (like Truss, a short-lived Conservative Party leader), who has described China as an "epoch-defining challenge". He said, after Cleverly's speech, that the UK's position was "now weaker than the US and our Five Eyes colleagues", and that his remarks were a "Yes Minister-written, threat-avoiding, surrender flag of a speech". To call Cleverly's speech "soft" was, he claimed, an "understatement", adding, "President Xi will be pleased."

Duncan Smith's reaction, however, surprised nobody, as he is co-chair of the sinister Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), an offshoot of Hong Kong Watch, the anti-China propaganda outfit operated by the serial fantasist, Benedict Rogers. When not dissing Hong Kong, he is mythmaking about China, and his antics saw him sanctioned by Beijing in 2021.

In the US, Cleverly's remarks also caused ripples. The Washington Examiner, for example, commented that his speech sought to have it both ways, and "US Ambassador Jane Hartley surely did not enjoy it". It was "designed to mitigate Washington's anger while ultimately avoiding China's red lines and offering Beijing an outstretched hand for new cooperation", which was not too far wide of the mark.

If Cleverly wants to have his cake and eat it, nobody should blame him. After all, foreign secretaries, if wise, invariably try to balance competing factors, and ideological hangups cannot forever trump Britain's long-term interests. Independent thinking is no bad thing, and the UK did not end the EU's control of its affairs simply to become a Washington lackey, as Truss and Raab wanted.

On April 9, moreover, France's President Emmanuel Macron warned that European countries should not be US vassals, and this hopefully struck a chord in London. If the UK is to succeed post-Brexit, it cannot rely on the US, which has, for example, failed to give it a free trade agreement and expects it to do its bidding, however damaging. It even forced the then-prime minister, Boris Johnson, to facilitate its dirty work by discontinuing Huawei's involvement in the UK's 5G network in 2020, seriously hampering Britain's technological development.

All the signs, however, are that Rishi Sunak is his own man, and wants the UK's relations with China to develop pragmatically, with an avoidance of what he has called "simplistic Cold War rhetoric". When he and Truss contested the Conservative Party leadership in August, she accused him of being "soft on China", and she focused throughout on confrontation, wanting China to be labelled a "threat". Although this played well with the alt-right, he has now had the last laugh, and the British national interest is finally triumphing over ideological myopia.

This undoubtedly explains why Cleverly wrapped up his speech by saying the UK wanted to benefit from Chinese investment, and believed in a "positive trade and investment relationship". He also wanted British companies to do business in China, declaring "we will support their efforts to make the terms work for both sides, pushing for a level playing field and fairer competition".

In conclusion, Cleverly announced he was doubling funding for China capabilities across government, and that resources had been allocated for building a new British embassy in Beijing, clearly a prescient move. If this sounded positive, it was meant to, and it marked a break from the dismal Johnson-Raab-Truss era, which was recklessly self-destructive. In a sly dig at Truss, Cleverly announced the UK would be "avoiding policy by soundbite", which confirms the adults are now in charge of the country's fortunes.

All in all, therefore, this was not a bad speech, although Cleverly had to tread a fine line. The fanatics watch his every move and weigh his every word, and, while trying to make progress, he has to try to keep them at bay. This cannot be easy, and on a scale of one to 10, his speech probably deserves a seven.


The author is a senior counsel and law professor, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong SAR.

The article was first published in China Daily.


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