Rishi Sunak is hoping to meet Xi Jinping for the first time if the Chinese leader attends next week’s G20 summit in India.
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly will land in China on Wednesday for an official visit to the country, facing down Conservative critics who believe the Government is too soft on the Beijing regime.
Tory MPs including Sir Iain Duncan Smith have called on him to cancel his trip in protest at China’s repeated human rights violations, including the crackdown on freedom in Hong Kong.
The Prime Minister has never met Mr Xi, who has rarely left China since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. The pair were due to hold talks at last year’s G20 summit but the meeting was cancelled at the last minute.
Downing Street officials believe that the Chinese President is unlikely to attend next week’s gathering in Delhi, but if he does they will try to schedule a meeting between Mr Xi and Mr Sunak.
This week Mr Cleverly will meet the foreign minister and vice-president of China to discuss issues including climate change and international security in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
He has also promised to raise the country’s human rights abuses – including repression in Xinjiang and Tibet, and the national security law which has cramped the freedoms of Hong Kong.
The Foreign Secretary hit out at critics of his trip, telling the Financial Times: “To consciously withdraw and not utilise our standing in the world, the authority and voice that we have, that would be seen as a sign of weakness, not a sign of strength.”
He said he would push for Beijing to lift sanctions which have been imposed on a number of British MPs and peers in response to their campaigning on human rights in China.
Sir Iain, one of the sanctioned MPs, said: “The problem with our position right now is it smells terribly of appeasement. It’s like we want more business, therefore we don’t want to upset the Chinese too much.
“The problem we have got with that is it’s redolent of the 1930s where we just thought ‘Just be nice to these people and complain occasionally but don’t do anything’. The result is, what we end up with is that they think we are just too weak.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said: “The two sides will have in-depth communication on Sino-British relations and international and regional issues of common concern.
“We hope the British side will work with us to uphold the spirit of mutual respect, deepen exchanges, enhance mutual understanding and promote the stable development of Sino-British relations.”