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The British foreign secretary came under attack from his own side during a visit to Beijing this week. James Cleverly has been accused of “appeasing” China by former leader of his own Conservative Party, Iain Duncan Smith. But the UK government should not apologize for engaging with China or discussing trade and business in Beijing. If anything, the UK has been slow to visit Beijing and has been slow to develop a coherent China policy compared with its closest allies and partners.

The foreign ministers of Australia, Germany and France have all visited Beijing since December. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken made a long-delayed visit in June. U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, who arrived just before Cleverly, pledged to improve conditions for U.S. investors in China.

The influx of Western tourists into Beijing highlights a key point. Trying to facilitate trade with China in a way that does not compromise national security does not mean abandoning fundamental commitments to human rights or geopolitics. If the US, locked in a tense strategic competition with China, can boost trade, so can the UK.

The Biden administration has taken pains to insist that it has no intention of restricting all trade with China, focusing only on sensitive technologies. The G7 embraced the idea of ​​”de-risking” trade with China, rather than decoupling – a parlance put forth by the EU. Cleverly can thus push for greater trade with China when the opportunity arises without violating Western consensus.

The UK and China share economic interests in a range of areas including tourism, education and finance. High tech is a sensitive area and must be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

Trying to boost trade with China while sending a strong message on security and human rights is certainly a balancing act. Actions speak louder than words. The UK has a good record in this regard. The U.K. recently signed the Orcus Security Agreement with the U.S. and Australia, a move that Beijing publicly disapproved of but remains an important contribution to Indo-Pacific security.

The UK also rightly refuses to silently accept the new national security regime Beijing has put in place in Hong Kong. The decision to allow nearly 150,000 Hong Kong residents to emigrate to the UK (and possibly more) outweighs any diplomatic protests in Beijing.

The balance between commercial, security, and human rights considerations will inevitably be affected by events and actions in China. As a European country and a middle power, Britain will not determine the future of the Indo-Pacific region. This means that UK policy will inevitably react to some degree.

Nonetheless, it sometimes feels like UK policy towards China is a series of discrete policies rather than a single coherent strategy. There is trade promotion, there is national security strategy and human rights – but the different elements have not yet been woven into a coherent whole.

The Foreign Affairs Committee of the British Parliament complained on Wednesday that there is a strategy against China, but it is so highly classified that even some relevant ministers do not know the details.

If there is indeed a master plan for China locked away in a filing cabinet somewhere in Whitehall, it would be nice to see some evidence that it had real-world consequences. James Cleverly’s trip to Beijing would be a good place to start.


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