British Prime Minister David Cameron’s mission to change the focus of British foreign policy by boosting trade links suffered a setback after Downing Street was forced to abandon a trip to China as Beijing punished the prime minister for meeting the Dalai Lama.
In a blow to Cameron, who had hoped to hold an annual summit with the Chinese leadership, French President Francois Hollande was on Friday feted in Shanghai on a full state visit a few weeks after the prime minister was due to visit China.
Cameron is understood to have abandoned the trip after Beijing indicated that he was unlikely to be granted meetings with senior figures. He is now expected to visit in the autumn, two years after his first and only visit as prime minister.
Britain accepts that Beijing is exacting punishment after Cameron met the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, at St Paul’s Cathedral in May last year. The meeting was designed to minimize offense in China by showing that Britain regards him as a spiritual leader. Downing Street has made clear to Beijing that it accepts Tibet is part of the People’s Republic of China.
Government sources said that tentative plans for the prime minister to visit China this month were put on hold for the simple reason that the new Chinese leadership only took over last month. Cameron spoke to Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (李克強) after his appointment.
However, the Guardian understands from diplomatic sources that a visit was firmly placed in the prime minister’s diary for earlier this month. This was abandoned when it became clear that the prime minister would be denied the access usually granted to a G8 leader.
British Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander, who has just returned from China, said: “David Cameron came to office claiming he would prioritize the UK’s diplomatic and trade relationship with China, and yet the real difficulties in relations have now been laid bare. I was in China this week and it is clear that the new Chinese leadership are focused on the French president’s visit, along with a large number of French companies looking for business. In the past, UK prime ministers have met with the Dalai Lama without the deterioration in relations with China that we are now seeing. For all of their initial boasts and bluster, the UK government has lacked a strategic or a joined-up approach to China.”
A No. 10 source said: “Of course, as any good diary planner would, we pencil in early on dates when the prime minister could potentially travel overseas without going firm on destinations. We decided several weeks ago that we wanted to visit some European capitals in the time we had earlier this month. When the prime minister and Premier Li Keqiang spoke in March, they looked forward to meeting in due course.”
Officials said trade with China is still rising and the two countries are on course to achieve ￡1 billion (US$1.55 billion) in bilateral trade by 2015. Exports to China grew 13.4 percent last year.
However, the decision to abandon the visit is a personal setback for Cameron, who said after coming to office that he would place trade at the heart of foreign policy, with a particular emphasis on the so-called BRIC countries — Brazil, Russia, India and China.