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China: High-level Talks

Volume 831: debated on Thursday 22 June 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government, following the high-level talks between the Governments of China and the United States on 18 and 19 June at which both sides agreed to “effectively manage differences and advance dialogue, exchanges and co-operation”, whether they propose to undertake a similar process.

My Lords, as set out in the Integrated Review Refresh, China represents an epoch-defining challenge for the UK. China is becoming more authoritarian at home and more aggressive overseas. China is also a permanent member of the UN Security Council, is the world’s second-largest economy, and has an impact on many global issues of importance to the UK. The IRR makes it clear that we will engage with China where it is in our interest to do so, ensuring that we always put our national security first.

I thank the Minister for his Answer. What is the current state of play in relation to bilateral dialogue between China and the UK?

Dialogue is ongoing. The Foreign Secretary is looking right now at options for a potential visit to Beijing in the coming months—details and dates are not yet confirmed. He spoke to his counterpart, Qin Gang, on 20 February, and met him at the G20 in March. He met the Chinese director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, Wang Yi, at the Munich Security Conference in February, and met the vice-president, Han Zheng, on 5 May. The nature of our relationship with China is very much set out in the integrated review and involves practical and pragmatic discussions.

But, my Lords, in the list that the Minister just gave the House, he did not refer to the meeting that took place on Tuesday of this week between the Minister of State in his own department, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, and Liu Jianchao, who is notorious for his human rights record in the People’s Republic of China, where he is an active member of the CCP, for his involvement in “Fox Hunt” and Skynet—two particularly awful experiences for people who are persecuted. Given that genocide is under way in Xinjiang, there are daily threats to Taiwan, and 1,200 political prisoners are still in Hong Kong, would we not do better to build up British national resilience rather than continuing dependency on a country which threatens our interests and the rest of the world?

I certainly agree with the noble Lord in relation to the need to build that resilience, and I acknowledge that I did not mention that meeting. However, there were many other meetings which I did not mention either. Liu Jianchao is here at the moment to co-host the Great Britain-China Centre’s senior leadership forum, which took place on 20 June. As the noble Lord said, he is a senior figure in the Chinese Communist Party. We support the forum itself; it is probably the most effective forum that allows parliamentarians here to raise concerns—including those around Xinjiang and other issues as well—directly with Chinese officials, and, yes, the Minister of State for the Indo-Pacific attended to give the opening remarks.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned the Integrated Review Refresh. Instead of flip-flopping between tough talk and muddled actions, we need to develop a strategy in which we challenge, compete and, where we can, co-operate. Does the Minister accept that, to do that, we first need a complete and comprehensive audit of the UK-China relationship—not restricting ourselves to government, by the way, but including the private sector and local government? Can he give us that reassurance that, instead of hiding behind a refresh, he will actually get on and do a proper audit?

My Lords, the relationship is permanently evolving, which is necessary as times change and things change. The Integrated Review Refresh sets out our approach to China. It is about protecting our national security, aligning with our allies and partners and engaging with China where it is in our interests to do so. We have not committed to publishing a stand-alone China strategy; I note the comments of the noble Lord, and I will certainly convey them to the Minister. However, we will continue to maintain as much transparency as possible and will keep Parliament informed of our approach towards China, both now and as it evolves.

My Lords, the noble Lord who asked the Question clearly has close ties and knowledge of China. However, should we not bear in mind that our interests should always be reflected in our relations with any country, and that the way in which China abrogated a treaty over Hong Kong, which had been entered into solemnly, is not exactly encouraging?

The noble Lord is right; the UK has been and remains clear that China today is in an ongoing state of non-compliance with the Sino-British joint declaration. We have been clear that the imposition of the national security law and the overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral system have undermined the civil and political rights that were promised to Hong Kongers under the joint declaration, and we continue to work with our allies to try to hold China to its international obligations.

My Lords, when Xi Jinping visited this Parliament in 2015, the Conservative Prime Minister hailed the UK as the “best partner” in the West for China. Four Conservative Prime Ministers later, it has been quite hard to find out what that consistent position is, and, as the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee has identified, we now have a strategic void with regard to our position on China. Is it still the case, as David Cameron called for in 2015, that

“we should increase our financial and economic co-operation, with the UK as the partner of choice for China in the West”?

My Lords, I refer back to the suggestion that was put to me earlier, that our policy should be one of building resilience. That means in our supply chains and in terms of inward investment into the UK. It never makes sense for the UK to be overly dependent on any one country, especially if it is as large, powerful and increasingly assertive as China is.

My Lords, are the Government not worried about China reaching out to Saudi Arabian companies which have been blacklisted in America, with regard to AI?

I am sure that we absolutely should be worried about that. I am afraid that I do not have huge knowledge about this area, or indeed any knowledge, so I will have to defer to the Minister and get back to the noble Baroness.

My Lords, the Secretary of State for the United States recently visited China. What assessment have His Majesty’s Government made of the success or otherwise of that visit?

Secretary Blinken briefed the Foreign Secretary about his visit to Beijing when they met on 20 June. Blinken was in Beijing from 18 to 19 June and met Foreign Minister Qin Gang, top CCP diplomat Wang Yi, as well as President Xi Jinping. Public messaging on the visit has been positive from both sides. The Foreign Secretary was clear in his Mansion House speech that nothing is inevitable about conflict between the US and China, and the IRR, which I mentioned earlier, sets out how we will engage with China where consistent with our interests.

Following the meeting between Secretary Blinken and the Chinese President, the US President Joe Biden described the Chinese President as a dictator. Do His Majesty’s Government agree with that assessment?

The UK’s position on the current Administration in China has been articulated many times by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary. We believe that, internationally, China has become more assertive, and, as I said at the beginning, domestically, China has become more authoritarian. The language used by the President is of course for the President.