James Cleverly has met senior officials in Beijing in a visit aimed at easing tensions with China but which risks deepening divisions in the Tory party.
The Foreign Secretary insisted the visit would allow him to have “tough conversations” with the Chinese on issues including repression in Hong Kong, and human rights abuses in Xinjiang province.
In a face-to-face meeting with vice president Han Zheng, who played a leading role in the anti-democracy crackdown in Hong Kong, Mr Cleverly said regular meetings were important “to enhance understanding” and “to avoid misunderstanding”.
In the first visit by a UK foreign secretary to China for five years, Mr Cleverly told him they would “address the challenges and differences of opinion that all countries have in bilateral relations”.
But Mr Cleverly’s visit has been criticised by China hawks on the Tory benches, who want a tougher line against a state which has sanctioned several British MPs and peers for speaking out about human rights violations.
Former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith compared the Government’s approach to the appeasement of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Alicia Kearns said she had spoken to Mr Cleverly before his visit and urged him to pressure the Chinese on human rights concerns.
“I’m very hopeful that he will land those points about transnational repression. We all know we are seeing increased espionage on British shores and we are also seeing appalling human rights abuses against the Uighur, the Tibetans and many more,” the senior Tory said.
“It is absolutely important that Britain has a role in the Pacific where we make clear that we will stand up for the rule of law, for human rights and for self-determination.”
Ms Kearns told Sky News that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak should “absolutely” meet Chinese leader Xi Jinping if the opportunity arises because that is “how you prevent and deconflict potential issues”.
He added: “China’s size, history and global significance means they cannot be ignored, but that comes with a responsibility on the global stage.
“That responsibility means China fulfilling its international commitments and obligations”.
This comes after MPs criticised the government for having an unclear strategy around its relationship with China, amid a high-profile visit by the foreign secretary James Cleverly.
A parliamentary committee cited “confusion” and “failure to explain policy” on China, following a government announcement of the ‘Indo-Pacific Tilt’ as part of the integrated defence review.
The report by MPs who are members of the Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) on the “tilt to the Indo-Pacific” saw them highlight the risk of an unclassified China strategy.
David Hughes, Dominic McGrath and Martina Bet – PA