Rishi Sunak will hold a surprise meeting with Xi Jinping at the G20 summit of world leaders in Indonesia on Wednesday to try to construct a new “frank and constructive” UK-China relationship.
Sunak, the first British prime minister to meet in person with the Chinese president for five years, has sought to recalibrate the UK’s approach towards China.
He is moving away from the more overtly hostile approach taken by his predecessor, Liz Truss, and is recognising the need to engage with Beijing.
Downing Street said Sunak would be “clear-eyed” about Britain’s relations with China, but throughout his time as the UK’s chancellor he viewed foreign policy through a primarily economic lens.
Sunak and Xi will meet for a one-to-one bilateral meeting on Wednesday afternoon, the first to be held in person since February 2018, with the then prime minister Theresa May.
The meeting was requested by Downing Street. “It’s important that we engage with people to try and tackle some of these shared challenges,” said Sunak.
Number 10 said the prime minister would be “clear on the need for China and the UK to establish a frank and constructive relationship”.
US president Joe Biden met Xi on Monday and agreed to “maintain communication” on a range of issues, as western leaders attempt to pull China back from its increasingly close partnership with Russia.
After a long freeze on in-person diplomacy owing to China’s zero-Covid policy, Xi started meeting with European leaders this month for the first time since the pandemic began, receiving Olaf Scholz, Germany’s chancellor, in Beijing and meeting Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, at the G20.
Downing Street said: “The challenges posed by China are systemic, they’re long term, and it’s a country fundamentally different with fundamentally different values to ours.” It added that Sunak will raise China’s human rights record during the meeting.
The meeting with Xi provoked a mixed reaction from Conservative MPs. Alicia Kearns, chair of the Commons foreign affairs select committee, said: “It is important they meet to prevent miscalculations. We cannot simply cut off China, we must work to create the space for dialogue, challenge and co-operation.”
But Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former cabinet minister and a notable critic of Beijing, said he was “worried” by Sunak’s stance on China and insisted it was a “threat” to the UK.
“I am worried that the present prime minister, when he meets Xi Jinping, will be perceived as weak because it now looks like we’re drifting into appeasement with China, which is a disaster as it was in the 1930s and so it will be now,” he said.
As chancellor, Sunak sought to deepen economic ties between the two countries by proposing the resumption of the UK-China Economic and Financial Dialogue, an annual trade and investment summit that last took place in 2019. The event was later cancelled.
Speaking at the summit, Sunak said China still “unequivocally” posed a “systemic challenge” to the UK’s values and interests, adding that it was “undoubtedly the biggest state-based threat to our economic security”.
Sunak said he still wanted to have a working relationship with China, describing it as “an indisputable fact of the global economy”.
He added: “We’re not going to be able to resolve shared global challenges like climate change or public health, or indeed actually dealing with Russia and Ukraine, without having a dialogue with them.”
The prime minister said his position was “highly aligned with our allies”, noting recent national security strategies from the US and Australia that adopted similar rhetoric.
He did not deny that the UK could arm Taiwan if it faced aggression from China in future, saying: “We’re considering all these things as part of the refresh of the integrated review.”
On Taiwan, he added: “There should be no unilateral change to the status and there should be a peaceful resolution to that situation. We stand ready to support Taiwan as we do in standing up to Chinese aggression.”
Sunak will also hold his first formal meeting with Biden on Wednesday, as well as talking to Anthony Albanese, Australia’s prime minister.
Additional reporting by Yuan Yang in London