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James Cleverly meets China’s vice-president amid criticism of Beijing by British MPs

The British foreign secretary James Cleverly has met China’s vice-president, Han Zheng, during the first visit to Beijing by a UK foreign secretary in five years.

During the meeting, Cleverly said it was important the two governments continue with regular face-to-face meetings to avoid misunderstandings. He also said it was important to address the challenges and differences of opinion that all countries have in bilateral relations, according to Reuters.

Han said he hoped the bilateral relationship would make new advances through mutual respect and practical cooperation.

Cleverly landed on Tuesday night and is expected to meet his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, on Wednesday. Cleverly had been scheduled to visit in July, but the trip was postponed amid the mysterious disappearance and subsequent sacking of China’s former foreign minister, Qin Gang.

Concerns over Beijing’s approach towards Taiwan and its support for Russia are expected to be on the agenda. Beijing has sought to present itself as a neutral potential peacemaker in the conflict, but has refused to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and in practice has given support to Russia. This week it was reported Vladimir Putin would visit Beijing in October, one of the only places the Russian president feels comfortable visiting after the international criminal court issued a warrant for his arrest.

In comments before his visit, Cleverly said no international issue could be solved without including China, but that Beijing had to also be held to its international obligations and commitments.

On Wednesday, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, said the growth of bilateral relations between the two countries served their common interests.

“During … Cleverly’s visit to China, the two sides will have in-depth communication on bilateral relations and international and regional issues of mutual interest,” said Wang. “We hope the UK will work with China to deepen exchanges and enhance understanding in the spirit of mutual respect, so as to promote the steady development of China-UK relations.”

Cleverly’s visit has coincided with a significant report from the British foreign affairs select committee calling for the government to take a zero-tolerance stance against Beijing’s “transnational repression”. The timing of the report is coincidental, its authors have said. However it comes as Cleverly’s visit is being painted as an attempt to restore political dialogue and trade between China and the UK.

The report criticised the government for a lack of “coherence” in its approach to China, and called for an unclassified version of its China Strategy to be released to the public. It also proposed the UK seek to have South Korea and Japan included in the Aukus pact, and to join the Quad. Aukus and the Quad – two informal multilateral groups – are strongly opposed by Beijing, which sees them as anti-China.

In what has been reported as a first for the British parliament, the report also referred to Taiwan as an independent country. Beijing considers Taiwan to be a province of China that it intends to “reunify” with the mainland, by force if necessary. It strongly objects to any and all acts which appear to legitimise Taiwan’s sovereignty, and does not allow its diplomatic allies to have formal ties with Taiwan.

The UK is not among the 13 nations that formally recognise Taiwan.

But in language that is likely to risk backlash for Cleverly in Beijing, the report states that “Taiwan is already an independent country, under the name Republic of China”.

“Taiwan possesses all the qualifications for statehood, including a permanent population, a defined territory, government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other states — it is only lacking greater international recognition.”

Beijing’s crackdown on rights and freedoms in Hong Kong – a former British colony – has also been a major point of contention between the two governments. The UK has objected to the persecution of pro-democracy figures and protesters, and in response broadened immigration pathways for fleeing Hong Kongers. Beijing has been angered by what it sees as interference in its internal affairs.

Prof Steve Tsang, director of the Soas China Institute, said it wasn’t clear how much Cleverly would be able to achieve.

“It looks like that Cleverly will want to focus on the positives, such as areas for cooperation, be it in economic or trade matters or in climate change,” said Tsang.

“But the reality is that China will only go as far as Xi wants it to go, and no more. Nothing Cleverly can do to change that. Xi wants Putin to stay in power and stays strong, and this will not change whatever Cleverly may have to say. If Cleverly does not know that he does not understand the first thing about Xi’s policies.”

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