David Cameron hints at future China trip as part of engagement effort

UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland
During his stint as prime minister, Lord Cameron attempted to usher in a 'golden era' of UK-China relations - Stefan Wermuth/Bloomberg

Lord Cameron wants to visit China as part of his approach of “engagement” with Beijing on issues such as climate change.

In a move likely to inflame tensions with Conservative backbenchers, the former Prime Minister is drawing up plans for a trip to China in the wake of his predecessor James Cleverly’s controversial visit to the country last summer.

The disclosure comes after the Foreign Secretary told The Telegraph last month that “there’s still a need to engage with China” on some key issues.

Lord Cameron has sought to toughen the Foreign Office’s approach to Beijing following claims that his attempt to usher in a “golden era” in relations between the two countries while Prime Minister made him an unsuitable candidate for Foreign Secretary.

Shortly after his appointment in November, Lord Cameron publicly condemned the detention of Jimmy Lai, the pro-democracy newspaper publisher facing a possible life sentence in Hong Kong – breaking with the Government’s previous reluctance to do so.

He would be likely to reiterate this condemnation on a visit to Beijing, the prospect of which was first reported by The Times on Saturday.

But Tim Loughton, a Conservative backbencher who was sanctioned by China over his criticism of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, said: “It is difficult to see what the Foreign Secretary thinks he can achieve by travelling to Beijing to pay court to those he enthusiastically rubbed shoulders with now that even he has had to admit that his ill-judged Golden Era has gone up in smoke.

“His predecessor went there only a few months ago committed to raising the plight of Jimmy Lai and taking the communist government to task for the continued sanctioning of seven British Parliamentarians. Jimmy Lai is currently the subject of the Chinese Communist Party show trial, human rights abuses in Hong Kong go from bad to worse and we remain sanctioned.

“I am sure he can find many alternative platforms to denounce the world’s greatest abuser of human rights, international law and freedom without having to jump on a plane if he is actually interested in doing that, as we hope.”

Mr Cleverly became the most senior minister to visit China in five years when he travelled to the country last August. At the time, Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, described the trip as “project Kowtow”, claiming it “smells of appeasement”. Mr Cleverly insisted it would help avoid “mistrust and errors”.

In 2015, during his time as prime minister, Lord Cameron hosted a visit to the UK by Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, and declared: “This visit marks the start of a new era. Some have called it a golden era in relations between Britain and China.”

In an interview with this newspaper last month, Lord Cameron said: “I think things have changed. There’s still a need to engage with China, particularly over issues like climate change – we can’t solve problems of climate change while ignoring a fifth of humanity.

“But quite clearly we face a more aggressive, assertive China, and so the other elements are of policy – how we protect ourselves with more hardened security against things like cyber attacks and the rest of it, and how we align ourselves with our allies so that we are strong together. These are very important parts.”

The Foreign Office said it would not discuss the Foreign Secretary’s travel in advance of any trips taking place.

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