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Western politicians face tough balancing act on visits to Beijing

The UK foreign secretary, James Cleverly, on Wednesday described his government’s relationship with Beijing as “complicated and sophisticated”. He said the UK’s approach was “clear-eyed” and pragmatic, neither seeking to isolate the world’s second largest economy nor shying away from raising disagreements.

The balancing act may prove difficult. Cleverly is the latest in a series of western government officials – from the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, to the French president, Emmanuel Macron – to have visited China in recent months hoping to repair soured relations and trade ties. Few have had much success.

China remains a crucial trading partner, and a necessary player in efforts to combat the climate crisis. At the same time, under the increasingly authoritarian rule of Xi Jinping, its government has become more isolated from large parts of the world, including the US, UK and their allies. They object to China’s expansionist behaviour in the South China Sea, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, military aggression towards Taiwan and anti-democracy crackdown in Hong Kong. There is wide concern over Beijing’s support for Russia as Moscow wages war on Ukraine. Xi rejects all criticism, accusing the US of leading a western plot to smear China or of interfering in internal Chinese matters. It has resulted in sanctions, condemnation and economic and military confrontations.

Cleverly, like others before him, said human rights issues such as the abuses in Xinjiang, as well as the Ukraine war, were on the agenda. He has faced criticism from China hawks in the Conservative party who want a tougher stance against Beijing. On Wednesday, he told Sky News he had raised human rights issues in “every single meeting”. Pressed on whether simply raising the issues was enough, he said: “I think the Chinese government understand the UK is consistent in our approach.”

What can these visits achieve? Prof Steve Tsang, the director of the Soas China Institute, said ministerial-level in-person contact was always useful. “But this is unlikely to change China’s foreign policy, which is made by Xi and is required to adhere to Xi thought,” he said. “Xi wants [Vladimir] Putin to stay in power and stay strong, and this will not change, whatever Cleverly may have to say.”

Scott Singer, a co-founder of the Oxford China Policy Lab, said such dialogue was still critical for crisis prevention. “Certain types of cooperation can enhance human and global security and thus makes Britain safer. The key is identifying those areas where there is a high possibility of joint gains and low national security risk.”

Cleverly is not the first to push these issues. Australia’s foreign minister, Penny Wong, who visited in December, gained the resumption of dialogue in a range of areas after years of being given the cold shoulder, but entreaties on Hong Kong, Xinjiang and two Australians detained in China were unsuccessful.

Blinken raised Russia’s invasion during his meetings in June with Xi, with the then foreign minister, Qin Gang, and with China’s top diplomat – now Qin’s replacement – Wang Yi. He received assurances that Beijing would not supply arms to Russia, but multiple reports have found Chinese sources have indirectly helped Russian forces with supplies.

Wen-ti Sung, a China expert at the Australian National University, said: “I imagine western governments no longer harbour much hope for China ever playing a proactive role on mediating an end to the Ukraine war. Though they may raise it with Beijing anyway, both to show their continued commitment to Ukrainian’s concerns and to place part of the responsibility for the war’s continuation on Chinese passivity.”

Even less headway has been made when it comes to appeals for Beijing to back off from Taiwan, which it considers a province of China that it is determined to “reunify”.

Sung said foreign officials would probably keep raising human rights concerns, but their main focus would be on managing the economic relationship. On Wednesday the US commerce secretary, Gina Raimondo, who is in Beijing this week, said she had had “candid” meetings in which she “didn’t pull any punches” about economic and business ties between the US and China. “I was able to explain clearly that we will protect what we must and promote what we can. That means national security is non-negotiable, but there is plenty of business we can do,” Raimondo said.

Several governments and the EU are pursuing a derisking strategy, while the US is undertaking a partial technological decoupling. Sung said the question was how to manage this without provoking Beijing’s retaliation.

China’s economy is in trouble and some analysts have questioned whether foreign officials hope this could make Beijing more amendable to friendlier trade relations. But those who spoke to the Guardian said it was tough to speculate on whether China’s economic troubles could make Xi more open to dialogue.

Singer said: “Western understanding of Chinese elite political decision processes is general very poor. It’s like reading the tea leaves, as many China watchers often say.”

Sung said Beijing would probably become more selective in how it meted out economic retaliation, but no less intense.

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