December 2, 2013 6:55 pm

Cameron’s zigzag approach to China

Britain’s PM lurches clumsily from human rights to trade

All western leaders are heavily focused today on what their political and trading strategies should be towards China. But few, if any, have been quite as muddled and inconsistent in their approach as Britain’s David Cameron.

In his first two years as prime minister, he was forthright in his warnings to Beijing about its human rights record. The Chinese expressed distaste for his “finger pointing”. But that did not stop Mr Cameron pressing ahead. Last year he met the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, at a public encounter in London, going a step further than other EU leaders. As a result, China put Britain in the “diplomatic deep freeze”, eschewing top-level government contact.

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Alarmed by the potential economic fallout, Mr Cameron this year executed a diplomatic volte-face. The UK recently declared that it was opposed to Tibetan independence. Having made this concession, Mr Cameron is now leading a trade mission of 131 UK business executives to China. Human rights issues are getting barely a look-in. As for the Dalai Lama, Number 10 has “turned a page” in dealing with him.

Mr Cameron is right to put a strong emphasis on boosting trade in China. The nation is becoming a significant investor in UK infrastructure, most notably in nuclear energy. As the Chinese economy rebalances towards consumption and services, it may provide bigger opportunities for sectors where the UK is strong.

But two criticisms of Mr Cameron linger. First, he has done himself no favours by lurching from one approach to another in his dealings with the Chinese. All governments face a challenge reconciling trade ambitions with human rights concerns when dealing with authoritarian states. But it would have been far better if Mr Cameron, from the start, had been more nuanced and pragmatic in his approach and in his language toward the emerging superpower.

Secondly, the UK-China trade relationship will have limited prospects while Britain remains ambivalent about its place in the EU. Mr Cameron said in Beijing on Monday that he wants to “champion an EU-China trade deal”. Yet he should not get carried away by that idea when he is the only European leader pledged to hold a referendum on quitting the EU.

Chinese officials might well think that rhetoric about “championing” a trade deal is inconsistent with the UK position on the EU. But they could also be forgiven for thinking that consistency was never Mr Cameron’s strong suit.

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