Rishi Sunak will extend Britain’s hand to China for the first time in almost five years, asking for closer relations on energy and the economy, in a move that risks a backlash from Conservative MPs who have had sanctions imposed upon them by Beijing.
Sunak will meet the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, at the G20 summit in Bali on Wednesday in last-minute bilateral talks announced late on Tuesday, a day after the prime minister suggested he would row back from categorising China as a “threat”, something his predecessor, Liz Truss, had vowed to do.
No 10 said Sunak hoped to establish a “a frank and constructive relationship” with Xi, but said the PM would not shy away from raising human rights concerns about the brutal treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
Sunak is understood to have been personally keen for the meeting to take place. Officials suggested it would have broad aims to find areas where the UK and China could start to make new progress, including on energy security and the climate crisis, as well as encouraging Beijing to play a more active role on Russia and Ukraine.
Sunak said on Tuesday night it was his intention to open a new dialogue. “I think it’s important that we engage with people to try and tackle some of these shared challenges. And I’m here to talk to people.”
But the move is likely to raise the hackles of the vocal group of MPs sounding alarm bells about China’s actions – many of them under Chinese sanctions – who have been pushing for the formal “threat” designation.
Among those to have had Chinese sanctions imposed upon them are Sunak’s security minister, Tom Tugendhat, science minister Nus Ghani, the former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith and the chair of the foreign affairs select committee, Alicia Kearns.
Duncan Smith said the change of approach was “drifting into appeasement” and Xi would take the rapprochement as a sign of weakness. “I am worried that the present prime minister, when he meets Xi Jinping, will be perceived as weak because it now looks like we’re drifting into appeasement with China, which is a disaster as it was in the 1930s and so it will be now,” he said.
Bob Seely, a Tory MP and member of the Inter-parliamentary Alliance on China, said: “Of course we need to talk to nations, especially those that may challenge our values and stability, but it is dangerous to normalise relations when they are not normal. We need to have an honest conversation.”
The former minister Tim Loughton, who is also under sanctions imposed by China, said Sunak must put the treatment of the seven MPs “at the top of his agenda” and added: “China may be a long way off being our ally but it helps no one if they carry on acting as an enemy of the west,” he said.
Sunak will be the first British prime minister to meet Xi face-to-face since January 2018, when Theresa May visited China for a three-day trade visit. Boris Johnson spoke to Xi during the Covid pandemic in March 2021.
At the time of May’s visit, No 10 was still describing relations as a “golden era” – the all-embracing approach pioneered by George Osborne – and talking up deeper economic ties.
But relations have significantly declined since 2020, caused in part by Johnson’s decision in the face of backbench pressure to reduce Chinese company’s Huawei’s involvement in 5G networks to zero by 2023 – as well as increased alarm at China’s violent suppression of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province that the UN human rights commissioner has said may amount to crimes against humanity.
Sunak’s spokesman said the UK still viewed China as a “systemic competitor”, as categorised under Johnson, although the integrated review said it was an “economic threat” – language Sunak has echoed.
“He’s going to be clear on the need for China and the UK to establish a frank and constructive relationship,” the spokesman said. “The challenges posed by China are systemic, they’re long term, and it’s a country fundamentally different with fundamentally different values to ours.
“But equally, none of the issues that we are discussing at the G20 – be it the global economy, Ukraine, climate change, global health – none of them can be addressed without coordinated action by the world’s major economies and of course that includes China.”
The UK is not the only western power re-engaging with China as Xi signals a phased end to the severe economic and diplomatic isolation enforced by successive and increasingly unpopular Covid clampdowns.
The German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, faced criticism when he took a business delegation to Beijing on 4 November, the first western leader to do so since Xi consolidated his power as a three-term president.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, is also planning a visit while the US president, Joe Biden, said after his first bilateral with Xi as president on Monday that he was intent on reopening communications in a bid to avoid misunderstandings on issues such as Taiwan.
In these circumstances, the UK risked being left out of the rush to re-engage with China. Western leaders are looking to balance economic re-engagement with a new caution over Chinese investment in critical domestic infrastructure.
Sunak’s spokesman insisted he would “obviously raise the human rights record” and that the UK was “clear-eyed in how we approach our relationship with China”.
The UK has been leading the campaign to force the UN human rights council to follow up on a report written by the outgoing human rights commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, showing widespread crimes against humanity in Xinjiang province.
Sunak’s approach to China as prime minister is in line with his tacit approach as chancellor – but polar opposite to his rhetoric in the leadership campaign.
At the Treasury, he hoped to restart the UK-China Joint Economic and Trade Commission and the UK-China Economic and Financial Dialogue, a trade summit that has not been held since 2019. Truss criticised Sunak for that approach during the leadership contest.
During his unsuccessful initial campaign to be party leader, Sunak told the Daily Telegraph that China and the Chinese Communist party were the “biggest long-term threat” to the UK. “For too long, politicians in Britain and across the west have rolled out the red carpet and turned a blind eye to China’s nefarious activity and ambitions,” he said.
Sunak will meet Biden on Wednesday at the summit as one of six bilaterals before his departure, including with Japan’s prime minister, Fumio Kishida, Indonesia president and host of the summit, Joko Widodo, India’s prime minister, Narenda Modi, and Australia’s, Anthony Albanese.