Jeremy Hunt, China’s go-to British minister, ‘may be off-limits’ after promotion to foreign secretary
Brexit deal set to push Asia down list of priorities for the China-friendly former health secretary, with government in disarray following two major resignations
Britain’s new foreign secretary may have burnished his credentials as someone knowledgeable on China but his attention for the coming year will be helping secure a Brexit deal rather than Asia, according to diplomatic and business representatives.
Jeremy Hunt, the controversial former health secretary who replaced Boris Johnson at the foreign office this week, is patron of the ruling Conservative Party’s “Friends of the Chinese” group, which promotes ties with British-Chinese communities and calls for closer relations between China and Britain.
He married Chinese-born Lucia Guo a decade ago. Also a Japanese speaker, Hunt was a “remainer” during the 2016 referendum that resulted in Britain voting to leave the European Union.
“It is a very positive sign for a global post-Brexit Britain that Jeremy Hunt has been appointed as foreign secretary,” said Jackson Ng, a rising ethnic Chinese Tory politician who is a councillor in Beaconsfield, 37km (23 miles) northwest of London.
“He has been a voice for stronger commercial, educational and cultural links between the UK and China.”
Chinese diplomats in London appeared shocked over the dual resignations of Johnson and Brexit minister David Davis, saying the news plunged what was already a fragile government into further disarray.
“This is unbelievable,” a source told the South China Morning Post. “A no-deal situation would be the worst outcome for Chinese businesses here.”
No 10 made a quick announcement that Davis would be succeeded by Dominic Raab, followed by that of Hunt’s promotion.
A Chinese business leader in London, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “Hunt is well known to the Chinese circle, but he will probably be too busy with Brexit to place any priority on UK-China relations.”
Last year, Hunt was co-chairman of the “China-UK high-level people-to-people exchange mechanism”, with the then vice-premier Liu Yandong representing the Chinese side.
In a meeting in October with Liu Xiaoming, the Chinese ambassador to London, Hunt was quoted by the embassy as speaking “highly of China-Britain relations” and being “honoured to witness and experience the golden era of China-Britain ties”.
But without an apparent go-to cabinet minister for Chinese officials and businesspeople – like former chancellor George Osborne in the previous David Cameron administration – the “golden era” plan devised by Chinese President Xi Jinping and Cameron “does need a creative elaboration”, said Yu Jie, head of China foresight at LSE IDEAS, a foreign policy think tank at the London School of Economics.
China would need to reconsider the credibility of the British government as a consistent diplomatic partner because the May government “is on the brink of dissolution”, she said.
The government has ruled out reaching new trade deals with non-EU countries before agreeing on an arrangement with the EU trading bloc to take effect after its formal detachment from the EU in March.
“If there is a ‘hard’ Brexit or lack of clarity, the Chinese government will not formally start a negotiation process with London,” Yu said.
But Ng expressed hope of Hunt being able to deliver trade deals with China, saying: “I look forward to him being a strong advocate for Britain forging free-trade agreements not only with China but across Asia, where he had previous business dealings before entering politics.”
Hunt was an English teacher in Japan for two years in the late 1980s.
His marriage to Guo has occasionally made it into the news. He once made a controversial remark in which he apparently suggested that Britons should work harder, like Chinese people.
Speaking in 2015, he said: “My wife is Chinese, and if we want this [Britain] to be one of the most successful countries in the world in 20, 30, 40 years’ time, there’s a pretty difficult question that we have to answer, which is essentially: are we going to be a country that is prepared to work hard in the way that Asian economies are prepared to work hard, in the way that Americans are prepared to work hard?”