Why UK-China relations require ‘wholly different way of thinking’

UK imposes sanctions on Beijing over Uighur Muslim abuses

Boris Johnson in China
Boris Johnson in Shanghai during his tenure as London mayor
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The UK is punishing China for human rights abuses for the first time in three decades - but ministers are treading very carefully.

The UK yesterday joined the EU, US and Canada in imposing sanctions on Beijing over its persecution and mass interments of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region.

Four officials and a security organisation in China were hit with travel bans and asset freezes, prompting Beijing to respond with travel bans on ten EU individuals and four entities.

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‘Utterly inconsistent’

Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy has welcomed the UK’s decision to sanction China, but pointed out that the move came as ministers were trying to push through a trade bill allowing the government to sign deals with countries that commit genocide.

Labour and a number of Tory rebels backed an attempt by the Lords to add an amendment to establish a panel of judicial experts to decide whether any future trade partners had committed genocide. But the amendment was voted down in the Commons just hours after Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab agreed to the ostensibly unrelated sanctions.

The Guardian notes that “neither the UK or EU has imposed sanctions against Chinese officials involved in the suppression of democratic elections in Hong Kong”.

Nandy told MPs that the “long overdue” punishment that has been agreed was “a grubby, cynical, last-ditch attempt” to avert a backbench rebellion and “sums up just how utterly inconsistent the government’s approach to China is”.

Raab bit back by ridiculing the suggestion that “the concerted and unprecedented action of 30 countries is somehow tied up with the UK’s domestic legislative timetable” on the trade bill.

‘Difficult balance’

The “difficult balance” faced by ministers was underlined by ex-prime minister Theresa May and her former chancellor Philip Hammond during a National Security Strategy Committee hearing that was also held yesterday, writes HuffPost’s executive editor Paul Waugh.

May insisted that the UK could not “shut China out”, while Hammond said the relationship with China would “require a wholly different way of thinking”.

“We have been rather used to dealing with strategic challengers that are economically inferior to us,” he explained, but dealing with Beijing demanded a new approach to tackle “the broad challenge across the economic, strategic and political fronts”.

Waugh notes that with the UK hosting the COP26 global climate talks this year, “Boris Johnson also needs the Chinese to help him get an historic breakthrough on the environment”.

But as Canada’s Financial Post points out, yesterday’s small margin of victory in the trade bill vote shows just “how thorny an issue UK-China relations are to British lawmakers”.

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