With a date for tea with the Queen in the bag for the Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, this week, Beijing decided to place Britain ever so gently in its place.
Britain now ranks behind Germany and France among the pre-eminent powers in Europe, the Chinese ambassador Liu Xiaoming declared on the eve of the premier’s three-day visit to Britain, which starts today.
”Before I came here, we used to say when we talk about Europe: Britain, France and Germany,” Liu told reporters.
“But unfortunately many opportunities were missed in the past year or so, and we all know the reason behind it, so people now start talking about Germany, France and Britain.”
The remarks by the ambassador, who highlighted a series of missed opportunities by Britain, ranging from the failure to build a third runway at Heathrow to an overly restrictive visa regime, show the delicate challenge in managing diplomatic relations with China.
David Cameron, in common with all his immediate predecessors, believes that Britain must forge a strong political and economic relationship with a country that is on course to move ahead of the US as the world’s largest economy.
But the remarks by the ambassador show that China has little time for the usual diplomatic niceties and likes to remind European countries in general – and one with such a sensitive colonial past, in particular – just who is top dog in the 21st century.
At a dinner last year to work out how Britain could tap into the vast economic opportunities of China while holding firm to its values on human rights, Hugo Swire, the Foreign Office minister, urged caution.
But finance minister George Osborne called for a hard-headed approach, saying Britain needed to throw itself into building the strongest possible relationship with China.
Needless to say, the chancellor prevailed. Within months, the prime minister embarked on his long-delayed visit to China, declaring in the Chinese weekly news magazine Caixin: “There is no country in the western world more open to Chinese investment.”
Human rights were on the agenda during Cameron’s visit in December as they will be during Li’s visit this week. But all EU countries have devised a formula to avoid causing too much offence to the Chinese, known as a “human rights dialogue”.
Cameron will refer to this dialogue in his meeting with Li, allowing him to say human rights have been raised without discussing the issue in great detail.
Ann Clwyd, a Labour member of the Commons foreign affairs select committee, says Cameron should not be afraid to challenge the Chinese: “I suspect we don’t get the balance right when trade is an issue.
"And this government is very hot on trade. But MPs must put pressure on the prime minister to raise the controversial issues with the Chinese.”