2 Dec 2013

David Cameron to China: ‘Come on in, the water’s lovely’

China has been staring at David Cameron’s request to come on a visit to Beijing for a long time now. It ruled out a trip last autumn. It dumped on the idea of last spring.

It took a great age to come to a decision about this autumn and when it did resolve that, it came up with dates that meant the chancellor’s autumn statement had to be moved by a day.

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Mr Cameron’s team is saying that’s all changing and the privileged invitation to dinner with President Xi tonight in Beijing proves it. It was, interestingly, a very last minute dinner invitation for a trip that has been in the planning for a long time.

Maybe David Cameron should gift the president a diary planner? The PM instead has gifted him Britain acting as advocate for China in its trade negotiations with other countries.

Mr Cameron said: “There is no country in the western world more … willing to make the case for economic openness in the G8, the G20 and the European Union.”

Ending the deep freeze

Some in the EU will baulk at the way Mr Cameron is throwing himself into backing an EU/China free trade agreement, thinking this should move slowly given some recent bust-ups and China’s closed markets in some areas.

Some will also note that in the last 10 days, President Xi has effectively appropriated some air space that Japan has, for decades, called its own. That’s the sort of thing that normally gets a strong UK response. The most David Cameron’s believed to be saying in his meetings with the Chinese premier and president today is that all sides should de-escalate the tension in the region.

The long period in the deep freeze for Britain-China relations came after Mr Cameron’s thought crime in meeting with the Dalai Lama at St Paul’s in May 2012. The UK ambassador in Beijing was frozen out of top level contact with senior officials and for a while lower level ministerial visitors were told not to bother coming as they wouldn’t meet anyone of significance anyway.

‘Dive together’

Mr Cameron is trying to change all that with a new direction and tone in British policy. He told a China-UK business meeting that though the old Chinese adage has it that you cross the river by feeling your way across the stones he felt it was now “time to dive together into the deep water.”

What about human rights, you might ask? David Cameron is doggedly saying that is a matter for the “human rights dialogue.” That “dialogue” is a device invented years ago for parking these awkward topics away from the talks. One veteran of past prime ministerial bi-laterals told me his memory was that the UK PM might point at the bunch of files marked “human rights dialogue,” the product of low-level separate talks, and say “we know about that” and then tell waiting media afterwards that human rights had been discussed in the room.

We may find out later how David Cameron handled this but if you hear the word “dialogue” you can be pretty sure he’s not been banging the table. Here, in an old webcam video from 2008 straight after he met the Dalai Lama for the first time, is a very different tone and content.

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