A split has emerged in the British government on managing its cooling relations with China, the Sunday Times newspaper said, citing sources.
British Prime Minister David Cameron and British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne are keen to avoid raising tension with Beijing due to concerns that escalating hostility could damage trade ties.
However, British Foreign Secretary William Hague believes Britain must not tone down its criticism of human rights abuses, while British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg insists Britain must take a principled stand on issues such as the treatment of people in Tibet, the weekly broadsheet said in its main front page story.
“Hague and Clegg are on the same side on this issue. They believe we need to stand up to the Chinese,” a government ministry source was quoted as saying. “For Clegg, human rights are a matter of principle. For Hague, it’s about not kowtowing to the Chinese. He believes we need to stand up to them, or they will simply treat us with contempt. Cameron and Osborne are focused on trade. They want to keep the Chinese on side.”
Britain is keen to attract Chinese investment in infrastructure projects to help boost the flatlining economy.
However, relations between London and Beijing have deteriorated in the past nine months, with the security services reporting a rise in Chinese cyberespionage, the Sunday Times said.
The Foreign Office declined to comment.
However, an insider at the ministry was quoted as saying Beijing’s behavior toward London had grown “quite childish” following Cameron’s meeting in London with Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama last year.
Although Britain views Tibet as part of China, the meeting sparked an official protest from Beijing, which views the Buddhist monk as a dangerous separatist.
“They like trying to wind us up by sending diplomats to Edinburgh and Dublin, but not to London,” he said. “They make a really big deal of rolling out the red carpet for [Scottish First Minister] Alex Salmond, because they think it’s one in the eye to London.”
A record 149,000 Chinese visitors came to Britain last year, bringing about ￡240 million (US$370 million) to the struggling economy.
However, Britain’s share of the coveted Chinese market is poor compared to competitors in mainland Europe, with the complex British visa system frequently blamed.