LONDON – Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted the UK must be ready to increase trade with China, in the face of criticism that his government is putting commercial deals ahead of security and human rights.
Setting out his principles for the UK’s future foreign and defence policy, Johnson told Parliament his administration will defend its values as well as its interests.
He said Britain had already called out China on its treatment of the Uighur people in Xinjiang, and had intervened to offer 3 million of Hong Kong’s people a path to becoming British citizens.
But some of Johnson’s own Conservatives – including former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt – raised concerns that he is not taking a strong enough line against Beijing and urged him to think again.
“There is no question that China will pose a great challenge for an open society such as ours,” the prime minister told Parliament on Tuesday. “But we will also work with China where that is consistent with our values and interests, including building a stronger and positive economic relationship and in addressing climate change.”
Johnson’s comment emphasised his delicate position as he seeks to shape a new role for the UK outside the European Union, striking commercial agreements with new allies, while attempting to show the country is still a force for “good” in the world.
Johnson’s struggle parallels that of the EU, which is facing resistance in Parliament to an investment agreement announced in December despite concerns about forced labour.
The British leader’s efforts were dented when HuffPost UK published a leaked recording of Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab briefing an internal meeting of his officials that human rights considerations would not always trump the need to trade with another country.
Restricting trade agreements to countries that meet the standards of the European Convention on Human Rights would result in missing out on commerce with “growth markets,” Raab said.
The Foreign Office responded by insisting that the leaked recording from the staff meeting had been selectively edited.
“I squarely believe we ought to be trading liberally around the world,” Raab told his team. “If we restrict it to countries with ECHR-level standards of human rights, we’re not going to do many trade deals with the growth markets of the future.”
A spokesman for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said the minister had in fact made clear “in his full answer” that Britain always defends human rights, and highlighted examples of sanctions and action the country had taken at the United Nations.
“We regret that this audio has been deliberately and selectively clipped to distort the foreign secretary’s comments,” the spokesman said. “As he made crystal clear in his full answer, the UK always stands up for and speaks out on human rights.”