British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly (L) and Chinese Vice President Han Zheng shake hands ahead of their meeting Wednesday at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Cleverly later also met with the country's top foreign policy adviser Wang Yi. Photo by Florence Lo/EPA-EFE/Pool
Aug. 30 (UPI) -- British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly held a series of meetings with Chinese officials in Beijing on Wednesday including talks with Vice President Han Zheng in the Great Hall of the People.
The talks -- the most senior bi-lateral exchange in five years -- sought to re-establish important lines of communication and address a lack of face-to-face engagement that could lead to "more opportunities for perhaps misinterpretations, mistrust and errors," Cleverly said after meeting Han.
The visit comes amid criticism from fellow Conservative MPs pushing for a harder stance on China due to escalating differences over everything from security and trade to human rights, with several MPs having sanctions placed on them for raising concerns about abuses of minorities in China.
Former party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith drew parallels with the appeasement policy toward Nazi Germany in the 1930s and Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee chair Alicia Kearns said she had urged Cleverly to make human rights a top priority of his visit and accused the government of lacking a credible strategy.
"The confidential, elusive China strategy is buried deep in Whitehall, kept hidden even from senior ministers across government. How can those implementing policy -- and making laws -- do so without an understanding of the overall strategy?" said Kearns.
Cleverly insisted he had repeatedly brought up human rights issues during Wednesday's meetings.
"I've had a number of conversations with senior representatives of the Chinese government, and I have raised human rights in every single one of those meetings and I will continue to do so," he told Sky News.
"This is an issue that is discussed extensively -- not just bilaterally, but at the United Nations. I take very seriously the report produced by the United Nations based on figures from the Chinese government," Cleverly said referring to a 2022 U.N. report that found serious human rights violations had been committed against Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
"So this will continue to be an area of discussion that I bring up alongside other areas, and I'm not going to change my posture on that. And I think the Chinese government understands the U.K. is consistent in our approach. I am consistent in my approach and I will keep raising these issues with the Chinese government."
Cleverly's diplomatic mission threatened to be overshadowed by a new report published Wednesday, by the foreign affairs panel, that refers to Taiwan as an "independent country," the first time lawmakers have done so, prompting an angry response from China's Foreign Ministry.
"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," the report states.
Closer ties with Taiwan were entirely feasible if the government was not so over-cautious about offending the Chinese Communist Party, it adds.
"The U.K. should loosen self-imposed restrictions on who can interact with Taiwanese officials. The U.S. and Japan have shown that communication is possible even at the highest level."
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin accused the lawmakers of "reversing right and wrong and confusing black and white," and urged them to refrain from backing Taiwan independence.
"China urges the British parliament to adhere to the 'one China' principle and stop sending the wrong signals to pro-independence Taiwanese secessionist forces," said Wang.
Parliament angered Beijing in March by sending a delegation of MPs to Taiwan for a visit -- including a meeting with President Tsai Ing-wen -- amid increasing sales of British defense equipment to the island which Beijing regards as a renegade province.