UK prime minister David Cameron with Chinese premier Li Keqiang in Beijing in 2013
UK prime minister David Cameron with Chinese premier Li Keqiang in Beijing in 2013

The relationship between Britain’s Conservative-led government and China has been something of a roller-coaster ride since David Cameron became prime minister five years ago. There have been ups and down with a few sharp turns on the way.

Relations went from bad to worse before a serious rethink in Downing Street led to fences with Beijing being rebuilt. For London, the change of direction was driven by economic pragmatism: the desire to attract Chinese investment to a country still grappling with swingeing austerity.

David Cameron, after six months in office, went to China with hopes of returning with a suitcase full of trade deals. He returned almost empty-handed but Downing Street maintained that “all deals with China take time”. In reality the prime minister’s decision to lecture the Chinese on the need to adopt multi-party democracy and improve human rights, along with other diplomatic incidents, had not gone down well.

After the disappointments of the prime minister’s trip to Beijing, Downing Street ordered an all-out charm offensive on a three-day visit to the UK by Li Keqiang, who was then one of China’s four vice-premiers but heavily tipped to replace Wen Jiabao as premier, which he did two years later. Mr Li was invited to meet every senior member of the government, amid fears that the UK was falling further behind France and Germany in increasing its trade links with China. On a subsequent visit to the UK, Mr Wen made clear Beijing’s displeasure when he warned western leaders not to negotiate without understanding the history of a country. The next day he told Mr Cameron to stop “finger-pointing” at Beijing over human rights.

Mr Cameron enraged Beijing by meeting the Dalai Lama. Unlike many US presidents and other western leaders, who took care to meet the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader in a low-key way, Mr Cameron conducted the rendezvous in public. The Chinese government cancelled numerous meetings with senior UK ministers and plunged relations between the two countries into the deep freeze.

Whitehall officials concluded that without a rapprochement, the UK would find it much harder to secure badly needed Chinese investment. Mr Cameron started to woo the China Investment Corporation, the country’s sovereign wealth fund. He told Time magazine: “I said to the Chinese Investment Corporation the other day, ‘I’m not embarrassed that you own 10 per cent of our biggest water company or a big chunk of Heathrow airport. I’m proud. I think it’s absolutely great. We want to be the destination for Chinese investment. Tell the other Chinese investors — come to London; spend your money.’ ” It seemed to do the trick. by December, Mr Cameron was in China talking with Mr Li, China’s premier, about a “breakthrough and progress in co-operation in the areas of nuclear power and high speed railway”.

Mr Li reciprocated and returned to London in June putting trade deals at the centre of his visit. Just before the visit, the UK government had bent over backwards to accommodate Chinese wishes, including a decision to simplify the visa system for Chinese tourists. But diplomatic sensitivities had threatened to boil over, including a complaint from Beijing that the red carpet that would be rolled out for Mr Li on his arrival was three metres too short. China had also threatened to pull the trip unless Mr Li met Queen Elizabeth, an honour normally only reserved for the head of state. Relations were tested later that year over mass pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Despite its role as joint guarantor of the territory’s special status inside China, the UK government was careful not to alienate Beijing, even when it blocked a visit by MPs to the former UK colony.

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