My Take

Xi Jinping's UK visit shows the changing face of Sino-British relations

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 October, 2015, 12:37am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 October, 2015, 12:37am

The government of David Cameron has been widely accused of kowtowing to Beijing as it rolls out the red carpet for President Xi Jinping's visit to Britain this week.

Here's a typical example, from the Financial Times: "Diplomats accuse Britain of 'kowtowing'".

"He is running roughshod over the Foreign Office and security policy," reported The New York Times, while accusing his government of departing from "Western" policy.

I am not sure if these are fair criticisms. The main objections have been over Cameron's refusal to engage China on human rights and cybersecurity. But Xi will still be getting an earful anyway, just not from the prime minister. A private audience has been arranged for Jeremy Corbyn, the newly elected leader of the Labour Party, in which Xi is expected to get more than a mouthful from the veteran British socialist about China's human rights abuses, including the case of Liu Xiaobo.

Meanwhile, hours before Xi's arrival on Monday, Prince William urged Chinese citizens to stop buying illegally traded wildlife products, such as ivory and horn, to save Africa's rhinos and elephants. Indeed, the prince has already extracted a promise from Xi to crack down on the illegal trade.

It's true that between Cameron and Xi, there will be nothing else to discuss but bilateral trade and businesses. There are about 150 deals to be sealed during the trip. Britain is now the second-largest trading partner with China in the European Union. It used to be the fourth. Beijing certainly appreciated Britain being the first Western country to break ranks with Washington to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank. But, of course, other major Western allies have followed London's example, with the exception of Japan.

In fact, it has never been Western policy, whatever "Western" means, to make human rights a key component of a China policy. That has only been the case with Britain and the US. Now, Britain has simply recognised the limits of its power and is dealing with China mainly on business, just like virtually every other Western country except the US.

Still it's clever enough to arrange influential Brits outside the government to round on Xi. That should satisfy those bleeding hearts from the West.